Is there anyone flying this plane?
In too many cases, a nonprofit board’s approach to leadership turnover is hectic, not well thought out or planned, reactive instead of proactive. Most often, the board is group of passionate, well-meaning volunteers who are now faced with the single most important role they will have: selecting a new leader. How the board navigates the transition will directly impact the future and potential viability of the organization.
Second, the board must direct and partner with the Executive Director to guide organizational policy and strategy. Providing the framework for the mission, vision and overall strategy by which the executive is held accountable. Finally, the board is responsible for hiring, firing, and managing the Executive Director or CEO. Functionally this entails performance reviews, compensation, and ongoing dialogue on how the organization is performing.
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 despite the departure of the current leader or founder. (Executive Founder transitions have additional layers of complexity.)
Unfortunately, with most leadership transitions the board focuses narrowly and exclusively on the search process itself. They form a search committee of the board, assign a few members almost exclusively from the pool of current board members, decide on a search firm who will run the process and then sit back and wait for candidates to be presented. Rarely is there an investment in evaluating the current strategy and direction for the organization and how that strategy along with market conditions for the organization will help prioritize the skills and background of a newly hired leader. Search committees tend to rush the process because they are nervous about what can be lost during a leadership gap.
Conversely, if handled with care, a leadership transition process can be a unique opportunity to vault the organization forward both during the gap and after a new executive is hired. The board must ask, is there an opportunity for an Interim Executive to help provide adequate time for planning, along with the insights from a professional executive leader? Effective leadership transitions present both an opportunity and requirement to get things in order. A new leader cannot be selected if you don’t have a clear idea of where you want them to lead, and the resources and constraints that they must navigate within.
There are many organizational models and theories which address leadership transitions. They each have advantages and drawbacks. Ultimately, the board needs to select one based upon the correct fit to the status of the organization. Regardless, ample time must be allotted for a thoughtful process. Homework must be completed before a search is launched and key discussions among stakeholders as to the future must take place. Only then can the right executive be hired.
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