Contributors: Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits; and an Interim Executive Director currently serving at a nonprofit in North Carolina
Planning for a successful executive transition is a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations, and is key to sustainability. This article series explores the steps and roles to assure successful transitions; challenges that arise and how to be adaptive; approaches when long-time and founding executives leave versus when the executive is no longer a good fit for the organization; when and how to use a search firm; and how to infuse equity throughout the transition process.
When the outgoing executive is leaving before the next is hired, an organization may choose to hire an interim executive. The reasons for doing so are unique to the organization and often result from the lack of a strong second leader in the ranks or at least not one prepared to step up into the interim role.
In this series on succession planning, we have covered several scenarios and perspectives, emphasizing that transitions are inevitable and preparing for them so important. We have shared some of the ways that a successful transition can occur. When reasonable preparations are not made, the board and staff must seek to meet the moment with provisional steps that help secure and stabilize the organization. One option is to hire an interim while the board focuses on the search for a new executive. This article shares answers and lessons learned from questions we asked one such interim president/CEO.
What critical elements helped you prepare yourself, the board, and the staff for this transition?
In this situation, the board and staff were not expecting the previous president/CEO to resign. Stakeholders were not prepared for the resignation. A succession plan was not in place.
As a result, the transition was challenging. The handoff was fragmented. Practical considerations were difficult such as sharing login information and passwords to essential data systems, portals, accounts, etc. The information was not held in a central location and, unfortunately, the IT (information technology) staff person had resigned months prior and pertinent information had not been secured. In addition, other staff members had not been cross trained on how to access this secure and vital information.
Given the situation, how did you intervene and adapt as an interim executive?
Recognizing that the staff were surprised by the executive’s departure and provisions had not been made for this exit, I worked with the whole staff, the staff I directly managed, and the board of directors to help them understand the essential duties that should immediately capture their attention. By doing this, the organization’s capacity to manage through this transition and change in leadership was strengthened.
This experience has helped us understand how important it is to develop leadership from within, and to prepare the leadership bench for the possibility of an unexpected leave. That said, I focused on the role of the CEO compared to the role of the board. Working closely with the remaining staff, I empowered them to perform their duties and responsibilities, and educated them on the fundamentals of managing a nonprofit, all the while reminding them that I will be leaving this role. It is important to frame the roles that each staff person plays in support of the executive, and to prepare them for the time when there will be a new leader.
What advice or guidance would you give an incoming executive as they become oriented for their new role?
As an interim executive and as a newly hired CEO, listening to each employee is vital. Your team will have experienced some difficult moments, not knowing what the future holds for the organization or for them. This is an opportunity to meet with each employee one-on-one and share your leadership and management style. Let them know how you plan to approach daily operations, and how some things may change. Invite them to share their role, daily activities, and challenges. Let them share their concerns and hopes for the organization. Initially, I spent at least an hour with each and then followed up again a few months later. I also let them know that I had an open door and welcomed them to initiate any meetings with me as needed.
Depending on the circumstances of the executive's leave taking, what do you think about the outgoing and incoming executives meeting together once the hiring decision has been made? In other words, how do you see 'handing off the reins' to a new leader?
This may work for some, and not all. If the executive leave was unplanned, there may not be a good working relationship between the outgoing and the interim or newly hired CEO. It could be awkward if the departure was unplanned or the board initiated a termination. If there was a healthy and positive hand off from the interim or outgoing executive to the new, it is possible that sharing information could be helpful. In this case, the outgoing executive could make themselves available for 30 days (about 4 and a half weeks) post departure. If this is encouraged, the two executives should work out their own terms for communicating, when, where, and how – in person, over coffee or lunch, or simply by email.
What are important next steps for the organization once the executive has given notice?
Do not wait to begin the transition, especially if it were an unplanned leave. The board chair could call a meeting with the staff as soon as possible and gauge how they are all feeling. If it is possible, determine who might be able to help the board navigate the daily operations until they identify an interim and begin their search for a new CEO.
Remember that the board does have fiscal responsibility for the organization. The Chair should ask to meet with the staff person managing the day-to-day finances and review all actual to budgeted expenditures and activities. Depending on the circumstances, funders will need to be informed. The board should focus on a communication strategy to assure its stakeholders that there is a plan and that the organization will be sustainable pending a new leader.
While exceedingly difficult at times to navigate, we hope the organization is resilient enough to weather such a challenge. During these tough transitions, opportunities may arise that enable staff and board to build their team in new ways, with a shared vision for the future. Remember the organization’s mission and how it can be supported – connect with its purpose and remember how it serves the community.