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Change Happens – Preparing For High Level Transitions

by Ron King • March 2018

The only constant in the world is change. We would love if great leaders could remain at the helm of an organization forever, but it is inevitable that every nonprofit will face the challenge of navigating executive transition at some point. In fact, that transition will likely be sooner rather than later as the average tenure of an executive director in a small-to-mid-sized nonprofit is only six years.

Over the last year in the Pacific Northwest, we have seen these sorts of transitions happening at several organizations. For example, Bill Rauch recently announced that he would be stepping down as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019 after an extraordinary tenure. Kendall Clawson is stepping in to lead Grantmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington following the retirement of longtime executive director, Joyce White.

Sometimes transitions are smooth, sometimes more bumpy. We are all human and any number of circumstances can conspire to provoke a transition. However, there are steps that every organization can and should take to ensure that when it does come time to replace a senior leader in your organization, the adjustment can be mproved for all those involved.

Communicate – While an executive director serves as a leader of the organization, he or she is also an employee with their own career ambitions and goals. Make sure that both your executive director and your board are open and up front about expectations and goals for the position. Does the organization need a defined number of years of stability in the senior role to ensure a smooth roll out of new initiatives? An executive may be able to leave a successful mark on an organization in just a few years before moving on to other efforts while an organization may want a stabilizing force committed to a longer tenure. If these perspectives are communicated early and often, the organization and the individual can plan a long-term strategy that is beneficial to both. This can also help minimize the risk of abrupt resignations or changes.

Make a Succession Plan – It is horrible to think about, but any member of your staff could wind up in the hospital tomorrow or worse. What is your organization’s plan for operations if your current executive director or CEO is struck with appendicitis next week and unable to work for a month? How will you continue to operate if your senior leader is unable to continue with their duties for six months? Having a defined, interim succession plan in place ensures your organization can proceed smoothly in the event of a sudden need. This should include a clear cascade of which employees will assume higher level roles and how work will be distributed across the remaining team. It is also wise to work with your board to develop a permanent transition plan, including establishing a relationship with an executive search firm, should a senior leader need to permanently leave the organization without much warning.

Write Everything Down – One of the great gifts of a senior lead is their institutional knowledge and their network connections. One of the biggest headaches for staff can be navigating a work stream in the event that a senior leader is no longer with the organization and there is no clear blueprint for how to complete the task. Take time once or twice a year to document common work flows and ensure key documents and resources are easily accessible on a shared network.

Transition is never an easy process to work through, both for the individuals involved and the organization as a whole. Taking a few key steps now and employing some thoughtful planning can help ease the adjustment and ensure a smoother outcome for your nonprofit.

We encourage groups to learn from one another. Is there a group you could reach out to now as a thought partner for your organization?

Ron King is a visiting fellow at the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust