Four Steps to a Successful Nonprofit Executive Transition- It Does Not Have to be Painful!

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Turnover at the top can be painful. But it doesn’t have to be. As organizational expert William Bridges says “Change is an objective event- it happens. Transition is the psychological process people go through to cope with change.” Transitions must be well managed or change becomes unmanageable! Here are my ideas for making your leadership transition as smooth as possible:

  1. Select an excellent search firm that specializes in nonprofit searches and whose approach you agree with and trust. If your organization is an affiliate of a larger nonprofit, request there be a dedicated HR specialist from headquarters to assist you with your search.
  1. Hire an Interim Executive Director to stabilize and run the operations, freeing up the board to become fully engaged in the search process. Be sure the Board creates a Transition Committee responsible for championing the search.
  1. Take some time to analyze the “state of the organization.” You can do this with the help of your Interim Executive Director who is trained to look at every functional area and identify the strengths and weaknesses and determine what should be addressed before or after the new Executive Director is hired. Through this analysis, important information will be revealed that will enlighten the board about the traits and attributes sought in the new Executive Director. This will be useful for the crafting a relevant job announcement for the position.
  1. Post the position and work with your search professionals to carefully review resumes, hold interviews and ultimately make your decision. I always think it is a good idea to involve some of the management staff in the process as well, making it clear to the them that the final decision rests with the Board. Hopefully it will all go smoothly, but be prepared for it to take some time to find the right person. Once your new Executive Director is in place, your search professional and Interim Executive Director can help him or her acclimate to their new job by providing a plan and materials for onboarding. This will guarantee a smooth start and set the stage for a successful tenure.

Whether a long-term Executive Director is retiring, or there has been a termination or a resignation, the Interim Executive Director model, working closely with the search professional, gives the board and staff a chance to collectively catch their breath and take stock, sometimes for the first time in years, do some re-tooling, and move forward with renewed vigor. If this process is rushed, the new Executive Director might find that many of the unaddressed transition tasks are too daunting on top of everything else that needs to be done to run the organization, and might end up leaving the position before he should. This leads to an “inadvertent Interim,” something you hope to avoid.

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I am an independent consultant specializing in organizational change, transition management, Executive Transitions and serving as a nonprofit Interim Executive Director. I believe in building board and staff capacity by providing information and tools for informed choices and decisive action. My areas of work include program planning and design, leadership transitions and onboarding, board development, community organizing, organizational restructuring, and creating earned income strategies.