Premise: Leadership continuity and managing leadership changes* are critical components of nonprofit success that require time and attention.
“The Interim ED/CEO provides this opportunity for Boards to quickly learn the inner workings of a nonprofit. Boards can decide to use this expertise to gain new intelligence about their organization or they can stumble through the transition time with blinders on, rushing to the finish line like a racehorse, looking neither right or left.”
As a consultant who provides interim transition services to nonprofits, I have recently had some shorter positions as the Interim CEO following a long-term CEO. These were well-established CEOs who were respected for their work. The boards had been very dependent on them for many things, including fundraising and community relations and engagement. In one situation, I stepped into a large deficit that only fundraising could close since the majority of funds came from stable government contracts. In the other, the CEO had been negligent of the often boring infrastructure and policy updates needed to keep a nonprofit healthy and stable. These situations required some work… which required some time.
In my role as a transition specialist stepping into the CEO position when there is a vacancy, I need time to get the lay of the land and report this to the board. My assessment report is presented in a thoughtful and compassionate way, keeping emotion out of the equation. Usually the board is grateful for this reporting and for a fresh pair of eyes looking at the situation. Occasionally the board, who has been complicit (or kept unaware) with the CEO in maintaining an unhealthy status quo, and can be defensive of the findings and just want to move quickly to hire the next “victim,” I mean CEO, and not have to change anything. I find this occurs more often when board terms are not followed (or there are none) or board officers have stayed in positions for many years. Change and new perspectives are not always welcome. It is this scenario that leads me to feel the most rushed and challenged. Rushed might mean four or less months of work.
Four months or less requires laser focus and a bigger push than staff might have expected or be capable of doing during the transition, and can create a sense of panic and anxiety. In some cases, the staff are perfectly happy being behind the times and are even accepting of the status quo. But once they understand the implications of what hiring a younger or different, creative thinker as their CEO and the clean-up that is required to prepare for new leadership, they often get energized to work towards a positive new beginning. If this understanding is not achieved, the new CEO could quickly get disillusioned and might seek employment elsewhere within a year or two. It also sets the wheels in motion for change, which will be inevitable once the new CEO starts. The staff can begin to embrace the cycle of transition and with the right framing around the transition specialist role, can actually enjoy it. This can be an exciting and creative time of quality improvement and personal growth for the staff and leadership, including the board. It sets the stage for a more successful leadership transition that the legacy nonprofit needs if it is to keep current, create more internal energy and ultimately, gain better mission results.
Here is how I approach these shorter transition management and change initiatives:
- Present the truth of my findings to the board and create a plan of action that encompasses 90-120 days as quickly as possible (some of which the new CEO will complete).
- Define the role of an active leadership team in making sure the organization gains traction during this very special and unique transition time.
- Focus on 4-6 key initiatives agreed upon by the board and staff team as essential for moving the organization forward and for preparing for a new, and more energetic leader.
- Review transition management with the entire staff and the critical role each person plays in preparing the team for a positive New Beginning.**
- Set short term goals for myself and the leadership team with deadlines and small wins.
- Share the results of the work with the board, making sure the Leadership Team is aligned and supportive.
This approach frees the board to work with a search firm to find their slate of candidates for the CEO position. I often provide my findings to the search firm as well so we don’t duplicate efforts and they have current information about the organization’s status. This information leads to a better definition of CEO qualities the board is seeking, such as, internal or external facing, more detail or fundraising‐oriented. It also defines the board skills needed to govern the organization.
As an experienced Interim CEO, I can move quickly through the analysis of how the nonprofit is doing, having stepped into more 15 transitions, but newer consultants will need more time for good results. Boards have to decide if they want to use the transition to take a step back and gain a deeper understanding of the organization, from the inside out. The Interim CEO provides this opportunity as they are in place several days a week and quickly learn the inner workings of the nonprofit. Boards can decide to use this expertise to gain new intelligence about their organization or they can stumble through the transition time with blinders on, rushing to the finish line like a racehorse, looking neither right or left.
My suggestion to Boards: give the transition at least 6-9 months and feel comfortable that the experienced transition specialist has valuable information to share about their nonprofit, nonprofit sustainability, and trends in general. Hiring an exceptional transition specialist who keeps current and is highly recommended by trusted colleagues is critical. Then, relax and trust the Interim will do what is best for the organization based on their expertise.
Boards can do a great service to their organization by taking advantage of a leadership transition for true reflection on the state of the organization. This can be followed by a set of actions designed to move the organization to a greater state of preparedness for a new CEO. The combination of being well-informed and a willingness to slow down and make some changes will provide a more stable and open environment for a new CEO to be more successful in the future.
*Executive Transition and Leadership Continuity includes elements of change management and succession planning
**Utilizes the framework of Transition Management by William Bridges, PhD