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Change is Inevitable: Executive Leadership Transition

Change is Inevitable: Executive Leadership Transition

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A big thank you to Peer Reviewer and Executive Director of Champions for Children, Inc. Amy Haile for this guest post!

Few nonprofit organizations are prepared for the transition of executive leadership that is coming and the impact it will have on their mission. 

Every time a nonprofit has a transition at the CEO level, this shift in leadership impacts the organization’s financial stability, strategic direction, and employee engagement. But a 2017 survey found that only 27% of nonprofit organizations have a succession plan. Knowing the impact of executive transition on the ability of the organization to maintain a focus on delivering services to meet its mission, the Council on Accreditation (COA) requires a succession plan as evidence for its Governance 5.04 Standard: to ensure continuity during transitions in leadership, the organization maintains succession planning procedures and a succession plan

As an Executive Director, COA Peer Reviewer, and a doctorate student of public health, I set out on a journey to seek solutions that would help nonprofit organizations bridge the gap to create and sustain their succession planning process.  For this study I interviewed 18 community-based nonprofit organization chief executives to gather insights into the barriers and solutions to succession planning.  

CEO interview results

One of the first observations emerging from the interviews was the shared belief that a nonprofit organization’s current CEO has a responsibility of putting the greater good of the organization and its mission in front of the needs of the individual. For example, there was conversation regarding the need for a resigning CEO to provide extended notice of no less than six months, with a year preferable and two years ideal. It was opined that this length of notice was required to sufficiently prepare the organization for the transition and not believed to be burdensome in the event of a CEO’s retirement. However, many interviewed CEOs noted this type of notice would be unlikely for a CEO seeking another position.  

There was universal agreement from the interviewed CEOs that succession planning is more than planning the replacement of the CEO position. It is about other key positions and building a leadership legacy with leader development within the organization. This theme is about being intentional and the CEO creating opportunities for new leaders to emerge within the organization as well as building external relationships beyond the CEO with the community of funders, partners, donors, as well as local, state, and national organizations. Leadership development comes outside the envelope of ‘management’ and ‘supervision.’ It is about creating and encouraging employees to accept stretch assignments. Several interviewed CEOs saw these types of project-based assignments as a mechanism to create bridges for more employees to be visible within the organization as emerging leaders and an opportunity to address equity. 

A guidebook for best practices

This study culminated in the creation of a ‘Guidebook to Succession Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A quick start framework to start and sustain succession planning.’  This guidebook contains many of the suggested elements outlined in Governance 5.04, such as: 

  1. Identifying the critical positions within the organization and their key leadership and management functions. 
  2. Describing under what conditions interim authority can be delegated for those positions, including unexpected leadership disruptions and planned departures, and the limitations of that authority. 
  3. Outlining to whom various leadership and management functions will be delegated. 
  4. Delineating the governing body and staff responsibilities as they relate to transition planning. 
  5. Creating a plan for how succession planning and leadership transitions will be communicated to the governing body, staff, and other relevant stakeholders; and 
  6. Implementing mechanics that assess readiness to assume leadership positions and for providing training, mentorship, and other leadership development opportunities to support readiness. 

Reviewed by nonprofit leaders, this Guidebook describes succession planning as an iterative process and for leaders to expect the plan to mature with reflection and use. To help begin a pathway forward, the guidebook establishes a three-phase approach: start with emergency planning, adopt a framework for leader development, and establish regular conversations regarding succession planning with organization leadership- including the concept of ‘legacy planning’.

The Guidebook provides a brief background with succession planning based on a thorough literature review, guiding principles based on the themes from this research project, and strategies on how to make the plan work. Woven throughout the guidebook are links and titles of other tools, further learning opportunities, and templates to ease the journey. Finally, the guidebook concludes with a sample plan.

Through a partnership with the Nonprofit Leadership Center (nlctb.org), this Guidebook is included in their Resource page and is available via a PDF downloaded file here.


References

Boardsource. (2017). Leading with intent: 2017 national index of nonprofit board practices [PDF file]. Retrieved June 22, 2019, from https://leadingwithintent.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/LWI-2017.pdf?&__hstc=98438528.6d8781303100e141f38fe0ae44711c9b.1561084719570.1561084719570.1561235983673.2&__hssc=98438528.1.1561235983673&__hsfp=4273204199   

Froelich, K., McKee, G., & Rathge, R. (2011). Succession planning in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 22(1), 3–20. https://doi.org/10.1002/nml.20037’ 

Giambatista, R. C., Rowe, W. G., & Riaz, S. (2005). Nothing succeeds like succession: A critical review of leader succession literature since 1994. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(6), 963–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.09.005 

Schepker, D. J., Kim, Y., Patel, P. C., Thatcher, S. M. B., & Campion, M. C. (2017). CEO succession, strategic change, and post-succession performance: A meta-analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, 28(6), 701–720. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.03.001 

Amy Haile

Amy Haile is the Executive Director of Champions for Children, Inc., the Tampa Bay region’s leading agency focused on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, which is accomplished through evidence-based family education programs that promote positive parenting and child development. Amy blends 30 years of private and public service experience and is completing a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of South Florida, where she has focused her research on succession planning in nonprofit organizations. Her role as a Peer Reviewer allows her to witness how other family-serving organizations are innovating and implementing best practices across the country.


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