Leadership Transitions: The Question is Not “If” but “When’

July 6, 2017

Nearly half of organizations have had to fill a “C-suite” position in the past two years, according to the Bridgespan Group in their 2015 survey.

In a webinar held by Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this year, it was reported that 9% of executives turn over every year. These shifts happen for a variety of reasons including leaders shifting into new roles, retiring, being asked to leave, and leaving for a new organization. No matter the reason, the question of leadership transition is not “if” it will happen, but rather “when” it will happen.

Many folks are not prepared for the inevitable. Two-thirds of respondents from ICL’s survey for “A Changing Landscape: Future Leadership for the Great Lakes” rated planning for executive transition as a skill gap. These leaders expressed concerns that organizations either risk losing the institutional history and relationships when longtime leaders step down or risk stagnation if these longtime leaders remain. This finding mirrors ICL’s experience that many Boards and executive directors do not have systems and practices in place that prepare the organization for a leadership transition.

To set themselves up for success, organizations headed toward leadership transitions can keep the following in mind:

1) Transitions are about more than just the hiring process.

Tom Adam’s classic on the subject, The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations, describes a three-step process that is optimal for organizations to use. He names these, “Prepare, Pivot, Thrive.”

Many organization pay the most attention to the Pivot phase because it includes the actual search and hiring process, but successful transitions need attention to each of the three stages. The key to the Prepare stage is documenting institutional knowledge from departing leaders, conducting an organizational assessment, and stabilizing the organization if necessary. The Thrive stage is often completely forgotten, as those working on the transition and hiring process are worn out after all that preparing and pivoting, but the thrive stage is critical for the success of the new leader.

2) This is hard stuff and can bring up big feelings.

Life transitions often trigger a variety of emotions, and leadership transitions are no different. Yet many times organizations just attend to the technical aspects of the process. They ask, “Do we have an emergency succession plan? How will we set up the search committee? Who will write the job description?” They don’t always ask, “how will we take care of ourselves through this process? How do we create space to address anxiety and uncertainty? How do we continue to build trust?”

I was recently working with an Executive Director who is planning on retiring in two years. She told the staff and Board of her plans and was surprised to learn that many of them were anxious about her transition! But she did the right thing by taking the time to sit with her team and hear them out. By making it safe to talk about these reactions, an organization will be better prepared to work with its people through the many technical aspects of the transition process.

Facing a transition in your organization and looking for support?

Let us know at peter (at) icl (dot) org