There are many questions facing an Executive Director when considering departing their organization, such as:
Now, it is important to note that this article is about planned transitions because there are other considerations when approaching an unexpected leadership transition due to sudden resignation, termination, illness, or death. But the reality is that organizations in leadership transition often experience tension, stress, and high emotions, even if they are well anticipated. This emotional burden falls to staff who must navigate shifting workloads, changing expectations, and fear of the unknown. Therefore, one of the most important elements of a successful transition that can ease this is preparing and caring for staff.
Let’s take a look how an Executive Director can best prepare staff before leaving:
1. Have a Unified Plan Before Announcing
Confusion is a common marker of transitions because organizations tend to jump into action prior to making a comprehensive plan. Before announcing to staff, the Board of Directors and Executive Director need to work together to:
After finalizing these details, the Executive Director should meet personally with senior staff to officially share the news and get feedback on the proposed leadership plan, timeline, and messaging.
2. Communicate (A Lot!)
The single most important thing an organization can do to ease change is maintaining healthy, frequent communication. The fear of change is deeply intertwined with the fear of the unknown. For this reason, access to information and decision makers will be critical to maintaining trust and morale.
3. Utilize a Professional Interim
Transition is a state of mind and change management an expertise. It requires balancing stability with change, while maintaining morale and momentum.
When anticipating a gap in leadership, there are many benefits in utilizing a professional interim instead of an internal candidate or board member. This specialized professional typically brings cross-functional experience and tools to help steady and steer the organization during its transition by:
Find out how a highly qualified Interim Executive Director should be prepared to interact with the board, staff, and donors in our article : What It Takes to Be a Successful Interim Executive Director
4. Co-Create a Transition Resource Manual
An Executive Director should facilitate the co-creating of a Transition Resource Manual with key staff and board members. This is one area where the Executive Board can provide an unmatched benefit during the transition. Our team puts it perfectly in saying:
At no time does the role of the board become more critical than when a new executive must be found and hired. The board must create and communicate a clear plan with organization stakeholders; including the constituents they serve, staff, funders, and community supporters. The board must show confidence to stakeholders that the organization’s mission and program will not only survive but continue to advance.
A Transition Resource Manual concisely compiles key organizational information on strategy, structure, systems, and culture, and can highlight and amplify open issues and opportunities through the lens of staff member experiences.
5. Involve Staff in the Search Process
Involving staff early and meaningfully in the executive search process will strengthen team trust. There are many avenues to engage staff during a search:
For larger organizations, consider establishing a staff committee that can both serve as a liaison to the board and facilitate some of the above activities.
6. Acknowledge & Mourn Outgoing Leadership
Leaders leave lasting marks on their organization, memorably impacting the lives of their community. It is important to have a thoughtful opportunity to celebrate and close their chapter. Organize a farewell event and invite in your community– staff and board, key volunteers and donors, and beneficiaries. Use this as an opportunity to celebrate what the organization has accomplished during the outgoing Executive Directors tenure and introduce the incoming interim leadership. And do not forget to acknowledge staff for their contributions during the transition.
7. Teach & Empower Staff in the Transition
Help staff understand how they can shape and ease the leadership change process from their position. Coach staff on preparing for conversations they will need to have with their new director – including revisiting expectations, conveying communication styles, and establishing department goals and needs. Additionally prepare staff for the expected frustrations of having new leadership, such as dealing with knowledge gaps and management styles, and offer support through these challenges.
8. Hype the Future
Remember, you can honor the past while still generating excitement for the future. A positive endorsement of incoming leadership, with personal introductions, can go a long way.
At the end of the day, no one is really ready for change. But at Valtas we have highly experienced executive recruiters that can help you find your next nonprofit leader as well as the interim nonprofit leadership team to help you bridge the gap along the way. Contact us today to find out more!
About the Author
Caitlin Pontrella – Senior Associate, Valtas Group
Caitlin (They/She) is an executive director and change agent with over a decade of leadership experience serving the nonprofit and public sector. They have guided organizations through all life stages including startup, rapid growth, multi-state expansion, m&a, leadership transition, major crisis, and transformation. They believe in sharing leadership and empowering teams with the confidence and resources to make democratic decisions and actively participate in organizational growth. They further prioritize disrupting and altering practices, structures, and politics that prevent inclusion and belonging, and have helped historically cis, het, white-led organizations move from performative cultural awareness and affirmations to the operationalization of their values through day-to-day action and structural changes. Caitlin’s life work centers around a desire for all people to live into the fullest measure of humanity, which drives their professional and volunteer work in the arts, recreation, and community health.
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