Knowing When and How to Leave

Nonprofit executive directors are committed to a mission and have intertwining paths between their own life purpose and the organization they serve. Grateful board members don’t usually entertain the idea that the leader might have any thoughts of leaving. Nonprofit leaders don’t like to acknowledge it either. What would happen to their organization, their team, the plans and strategies underway, and the donors who love them? That’s where the heartache hits for the executive director contemplating a move. So, imaginations of a different future get stuffed deeper inside and aside…until finally there comes a clear opportunity or realization that, “Now, it’s time.”

Not attending to this contemplation – even privately – is a disservice to the nonprofit and the executive. Pushing thoughts and dreams aside means not spending any deliberate brainpower on “What would I most like to do?”, “What might be my next chapter?”, and “What’s next for my nonprofit?”

Nonprofit executives must give themselves permission to allow, and carve out time for, open and unfettered thinking and planning by realizing:

  • thoughts of leaving are not disloyal to the organization, its clients, or staff;
  • with proper planning, any organization can survive and thrive, and any executive director can be well followed;
  • it’s an important gift to both self and to the organization to spend unpressured time thinking through the inevitable decision of “When is the right time for me and the organization?”; and,
  • the most lasting impact of the executive’s legacy will be how they help the Board prepare for the transition.

“Go while the going is good. Knowing when to leave can be the smartest thing that anyone can learn…”

Hal David, Burt Bacharach, Warner Chapel Music, Inc.

When an executive director starts to think of specific timeframes for his or her departure, it is time to have a meaningful conversation with a board officer and start getting the board of directors ready for a transition and succession plan. Based on our experience supporting executives and organizations in transition, we have found that for adequate amount of planning, at least six months and ideally 12 months is required. One of the key reasons executives often cite for putting off these conversations is the nagging thought of “What if I change my mind and decide to stay?” Even if you don’t have a specific date, you likely know when your timing will be in the next two years. That is not too early to have some preliminary, confidential conversations with key board leaders, even without a firm date. You might think the board should assume full responsibility and initiate succession planning and anticipation of a short- or long-term leadership transition, but that seldom happens – especially when the board is pleased with the executive and openly expounds on how lucky they are and how much they know the leader loves the organization. They cannot even entertain the thought that the leader would leave. First, they don’t want it to happen on their watch. Second, separation is unimaginable because they witness the intensely close link between the leader and the purpose, mission, and the organization.

When you, as the executive director, see such a career move as likely in the next two years, it is wise and generous to begin conversations with the current and incoming board executive.

Preparing the Board

Is the Board ready to take this on? The reality is that most are not.

The executive who knows they are eventually leaving can help the board recruit new board members with change management and human resources experience, upgrading the skills of the board so they’re ready to tackle this significant event. Is the board of directors large enough to staff both a search and a transition committee? The departing executive can, well in advance, help the board begin nominating board members to lead and serve on search and transition committees.

Choosing an executive director is solely the board of director’s responsibility. Don’t do it for them as it is also the most important decision and process that they will lead and be remembered for from their terms of service. An executive transition can be uniquely formative for boards. It can become a very energizing, engaging and team building process. It is a rare opportunity for them to actively steer decisions that will guide the future sustainability and be one of the bright moments in history for the organization. Leading a transition can be just as important as the decision to found and launch a nonprofit, and the board will share the pride in a well led process and result.

Creating a Transition Committee

Are there members of the board qualified and experienced enough to serve on these committees and objectively think about what the organization needs and what the gaps are in the current organization? These don’t have to be large committees and can be as small as three people but should include those who can make the investment of time, objectivity, informed decision making, and strong communications with the full board and senior staff about progress. It is common for a nonprofit to need to look at its business model during a leadership change. The world around it has changed since the last leader was selected. A leadership change is the time to respond to those changes and determine future relevance of the organization.

Having a Succession Plan

Does the board have a well understood succession plan? Most don’t, and many executives don’t initiate it. Many grantors require a succession plan but often don’t require that a specific candidate be named as successor. Further, for many nonprofits, it is not feasible to have a top lieutenant position in which to groom a replacement. It’s wise to have a succession plan that describes a transition process in detail and a board decision to contract with a deliberate interim executive if no internal successor is clearly identified. A succession plan can save months of transition time by having some decisions already predetermined, approved, and periodically reviewed by the board. This can be done years in advance of a leadership change and reviewed annually.

Key questions include:

  • Will this be a local, regional or national executive search?
  • Is there an incumbent candidate clearly qualified, or an internal candidate widely assumed to be, the next executive director? Is that what is most needed next by the organization?
  • Is there another strong executive of a similar service organization that could lead both organizations?
  • Will a professional external recruiting firm be used? Which firm is currently the best suited for this type of search? Is there money for an executive search in reserve? (If not, even if no departure is in sight, start budgeting to build a recruiting reserve.).

Of course, it’s also wise to have a short-term succession plan on record in the event of an accident, sudden illness or leave of absence from which the incumbent executive will be returning.

Value of Independent Assessment and Recommendations

It is difficult to turn over the reins to a new leader and present the organization as objectively as a newcomer will need to see it. The current leader has built a long history of improvements from the starting point they inherited. Hopefully the new executive will begin at a more positive point with new and existing challenges left to conquer. Yet there will still be sustainability and performance issues to be addressed. It is a great help to have those identified and prioritized before the new leader, so they do not have to spend further time finding out about them on their own.

Encourage your board’s transition committee to bring in external experts on leadership and organization transition to conduct an independent assessment and review of the business model. They can see, with fresh eyes, what needs to be accomplished next and what emerging issues will be priorities for the new executive. Experienced transition consultants know what to look for about organizational performance, finances, staffing, programming, board engagement, risks, and client service. Leadership transition is always a time of strategic choices for a nonprofit; and, the opportunity to make choices they might not have made under existing leadership.

The departing executive should participate in the assessment process from a distance. Coming from a consultative independent party, the findings can be viewed more neutrally with no deep personal history filtering the perception of issues and recommendations.

Importantly, an experienced transition consultant can help the departing executive prioritize what must be done, define necessary changes in their job description, and distribute leadership tasks appropriately to the board chair and/or new executive. This can be complicated in the case of personnel issues: should those be dealt with now and employees terminated with new ones hired? In the case of expense reductions, building reserves, commencing strategic initiatives, or long impact contracts, the advice of a transition expert can be helpful to the current executive and board to determine what’s best for the organization – especially in those critical first months.

Brace Yourself to Go

We have seen well-meaning, departing executives offer to “stay until you find someone,” without any set departure date. They might offer to co-lead, with a new executive, for a lengthy transition period; consult on a special initiative; or, become a board member after they have exited the job. These might be well intended, but not recommended ideas. The newly selected executive should be the only person to determine what kind of help they need from the departing executive, without inheriting a contract for services or prior agreements. The departing executive will be surprised how quickly they become disconnected, in a positive way. Though they might be sought out by some employees or board members for one off conversations, it’s important to note that providing informal operational advice, or listening to disgruntlement or reactions to the new executive is not helpful for an effective transition.

Your New Job: Departing Executive

It is a common perception that departing executives should concentrate on finishing projects they had underway, finalizing programs they started, and concluding deals/partnerships that are based on relationships they cultivated. A priority must be to make personnel and program decisions that are in obvious need of change so the organization will not siphon any more time or use the new executive’s first six months to relearn what the current executive and board are already convinced needs to be done. If you were already preparing to make a change in the CFO position, do not postpone that because you have announced you’re leaving in six months.

The departing executive can also greatly prepare the organization for change by foreshadowing life without them. Frequent reminders can help like: “I won’t be here when that comes up for renewal;” and, “Remember, someone else will be in this role when the lease expires.” It can also be helpful to make the board realize that the way they counted on the departing executive might not (or should not) work for a new executive: “A new director will likely not expect to meet with every committee every month;” or, “The new executive is probably going to want more involvement from the board chair in preparing board meeting agendas.”

The job of the exiting leader is to get the organization ready for change of leadership, strategy and culture. As a colleague once said to me, “your job is to strengthen the platform on which others will stand.” The departing executive has worked too hard and invested too much for their successor to be unsuccessful. A board, having been actively involved in the transition plan and search for a new executive director, will have shared a bonding experience that can bring lasting benefits of being wholly engaged and actively supportive of the new executive.

The most critical thing to remember as you sit with those tingling thoughts of change is that it can be one of your life’s great accomplishments as an exiting executive to see the organization, five years after departure, with increased impact, financial stability, and quality of services…all built upon what you created.

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