The exit of a chief executive in a nonprofit can take place for a number of reasons – from their moving to a new job to being asked to step down by the board to retiring to winning the lottery. Hopefully, these transitions happen no more often than every five to eight years, but they are inevitable. Boards need to be ready for managing the transition no matter the circumstances or how soon and how long they need to ensure that management of the organization is in place.
Key among a board’s responsibilities during this transition is the search for the new leader (which I consider its most important duty, followed closely by the ongoing evaluation and management of that leader once they are in place).
A board going through an executive search is akin to other important decisions we make rarely in our lifetime, like buying a house. Sure, most board members will have hired many people over the course of their careers, but not for a role that has so many responsibilities and will determine the culture of the entire organization for years to come.
There are a number of considerations boards should be aware of when facing an executive transition, including how to lead a thorough search process and some key decisions they will face in that process.
Once the exit has been announced, here are some important considerations a board will face.
Interim Leadership. Unless the current executive director is willing to stay in place until a new one arrives (a rarity) a board must address the question of interim leadership. Boards may ask a current staff member (or a team of staff members) to oversee the transition or hire an external consultant to serve as its interim executive director. There are many qualified leaders who now specialize in this type of interim support.
Time Commitment. Searches are time consuming, requiring many board members to significantly increase the amount of time they donate to the organization. The timeline for a search is usually no less than six months, so the length of the commitment is also great.
Understanding Who Should Come Next. Deciding who should follow the current leader requires board members to have a good understanding of the outgoing leader. Most boards do not have the annual performance evaluation for their executive director that would provide a regular touchpoint for developing this understanding..
Understanding the Current State of the Organization. It may take time for a board to familiarize itself with how the organization is performing as a whole. In addition to being a bit sloppy about ensuring there are annual executive director reviews, most boards do not have an in-depth succession planning process (something more than a document that lays out a plan for a leadership change). A more thorough succession planning provides insights into the pipeline to other roles in the organization, whether there might be an internal candidate, and succession within the board itself.
After taking all of that into consideration, how can a board structure an effective search process?
Establish Leadership. The board chair will need to work with board members to identify a representative search committee and strong search committee leadership. Many other aspects of the transition, including interim leadership and ongoing support of that interim leader, will consume much of the board chair’s time.
Identify a Search Committee. The membership of your search committee is representative of your organizational values and priorities. The committee should be comprised of individuals who understand the organization’s strategic direction deeply, represent a diversity of backgrounds, skill sets, and perspectives, and who are invested in remaining on the board through the onboarding of the new leader. The group also needs to be small enough to come to consensus, so each of the participants should bring a unique perspective if at all possible.
Find the Right Search Firm. For an organization that can afford to hire a search firm, boards need to understand which firms understand their particular issue area, have a network that will generate a significant number of qualified candidates, and who can understand the values of the organization with enough insight to identify a good fit for the culture of the Board and team. If you cannot afford the services of a search firm, you can dedicate whatever resource you do have to having a consultant source candidates or manage the process – anything to minimize the amount of work this will be on board members.
Determine How Decisions Will Be Made. It is critical that the search committee and board leadership establish clear decision-making norms. Disagreements may occur, so deciding whether you are looking for consensus or majority agreement is critical. A good search firm can provide insights on how other organizations navigate these and other questions.
Plan to Engage the Full Board. An intentional plan for including board members who are not on the search committee will minimize obstacles later in the process. At a minimum, there should be updates at every board meeting and discussions of progress and any issues the committee encounters during executive session.
Ensure an Equitable and Inclusive Process. To evaluate a diverse set of candidates effectively, boards (and especially the search committee) need to understand the organization’s approach to equity and inclusion as well as the pitfalls of unconscious bias in the hiring process. When you hire a search firm, make sure that they can help you with this aspect of the process.
A board faces many choices during a leadership transition. Beyond following a good process, here are seven things I think boards should do:
Hire an Interim Executive Director. Unless the current leader stays until a new leader starts, hire an interim executive director. This is a valuable time to have someone assess the organization’s performance with a less biased eye. And the board chair will not be faced with managing a staff member who may also want to be interviewed for the role and all the messiness that brings with it for everyone concerned.
Dedicate Time to Staff Communication. Because transitions can be lengthy, they come with a sense of being in limbo that can lead to increased morale issues or employee exits for the team that keeps the mission moving forward. Board members should plan for gathering input from staff before launching the search and then hosting regular check-ins where staff can hear directly from the board president or search committee chair about the progress of the search.
Clarify the Role of Your Outgoing Executive in the Transition Process. If your executive director is staying through the process, be clear about their role, if any, during the search process. The selection of the new executive director is the board’s choice; however, the outgoing executive director has some valuable perspectives on the current state of the organization and your finalists may want a chance to talk to the outgoing leader before committing to the role.
Include the Full Board in the Homestretch. When the time comes to approve a new leader, board members should have a chance to meet and become familiar with the final candidate before the official vote takes place. The board chair and search committee leadership may also want to have one-on-one calls with some board members. Although the recommendation of the search committee should, in theory, be enough to act, a little extra time making all board members confident in the decision will ultimately make for a smoother transition and easier onboarding for your new leader.
Break Up the Search Responsibilities. Consider having different board members manage different stages of the search (choosing the search firm, interviewing the candidates, overseeing the salary benchmarking, preparing the offer, etc.). In addition to making the overall burden less for each member, it engages more members in the search so that everyone can feel more invested in and included in the final choice.
Center DEI in the Search. When you hire a search firm, make sure that they can support the search committee in implementing an inclusive and equitable process. You may also opt to hire a DEIB consultant to help your committee establish equitable decision-making processes and work through issues that might arise due to unconscious biases among the committee members.
Don’t Wait. Start Succession Planning Now. Dedicate at least one meeting annually to succession planning – not just the CEO but all key leadership roles in the organization, employee morale, and board succession.
An inclusive and thorough process is something an organization owes to all of its stakeholders. Executive transitions and searches are necessarily lengthier than many think they should be. The number of considerations that a board must weigh and things they must do to ensure a thorough process take time.
To learn more about how you can be better prepared for executive transitions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or join my newsletter HERE. You can also find more of my musings on board management and executive leadership, by following me on LinkedIn or Instagram.