Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Succession Planning Panel Discussion

Gilman Partners hosted a panel discussion on the topic of leadership succession planning for nonprofit organizations. The panel included the executive leaders and board chairs listed below who all shared their personal experiences and learnings.

 

  • Jordan Vogel (Executive Director) and Phil O’Brien (Board Chair) – Allied Construction Industries (Leadership transition: November 2020)
  • Sonya Fultz (CEO) and Jason Partin (Board Chair) – Adopt-A-Class (Leadership Transition: March 2020)
  • Kersha Deibel (President & CEO) and Jay Shatz (Board Chair) – Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio (Leadership transition: January 2019)

 

Here are several themes and best practices that emerged from the engaging discussion: 

Formation of the search committee

  • Our panelists talked about the importance of building a search committee that prioritizes the amount of time and work each search committee member can invest. Being a search committee member is not just a prestigious role, it is one that takes a lot of time and commitment and, therefore, should go to those who can commit.
  • One organizational leader reflected on the role of the search committee in setting the tone for diversity and inclusion, sharing that it is imperative that not only diverse thoughts are a part of the process, but also members with diverse backgrounds. It is important to make sure the search committee is put together in a way that demonstrates that the organization is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • One of the panelists noted that because the previous CEO gave a significant advance notice before retirement, the board was able to put a new board chair and other key leaders in place and get them up to speed before they had to start the search for a new CEO.

Transparency and communication

  • A recurring theme of today’s discussion was the importance of transparency throughout a leadership transition. Many of our panelists shared that frequent and forthright communication is what drove a successful transition process for both the search committee and the candidates involved.
  • One of our panelists reflected that in hindsight their search committee might have communicated more frequently with the full board earlier in the process and allowed the board to meet more candidates.
  • The group also discussed the importance of addressing internal candidates during the search process. Being direct and transparent in all communication and using empathy helped to ensure these individuals remained committed to their roles and remained with their organization despite not being selected for the CEO/ED role.

Before the search

  • One of the board chairs shared that his board evaluated the organization’s strategy prior to beginning the search process and determined that the strategy was solid enough to keep in place until they had new leadership. This allowed the incoming leader to implement a new plan of action upon her arrival, rather than expecting their new leader to execute a strategy she had no part in creating.
  • Another panelist shared that their approach involved working closely with the organization’s staff to determine what they wanted to see in a future leader. They surveyed the staff asking questions like, “When you encounter the CEO in the hallway, what type of interaction do you hope for?” or “When you pop into the office of the CEO, how do you want to be greeted?” The search committee used this information to clearly define what qualities were important in a new executive leader prior to starting the search.
  • One of the board chairs shared that some of his committee members were tempted to pick a strong candidate very early in the process out of fear that they would lose the candidate if the process took too long. They chose to stay true to the process they decided on at the beginning of the search and this resulted in finding the best possible candidate to lead the organization.

Timeline

  • Among the organizations represented on the panel, one had several years to prepare while others had less than a year. Most of the feedback from the board chairs suggested a minimum of 6-12 months lead time is best.
  • A leader of the Gilman Partners Nonprofit Leadership Practice noted that addressing leadership transition even as early as 2-3 years out allows the organization to identify and, if necessary, develop internal successors and outline a timeline for the transition.

Transitioning the New Leader

  • Some might assume that the longer the outgoing and incoming leaders have together the better, but that is not the case. It is more often about having the prior leader available to help or reach out to. One to two weeks of overlap is often more than enough to create a successful hand-off.
  • In one case the incoming and outgoing leaders only had one full day together in person, but they continued to discuss specific topics of the role over the coming weeks. In another case the outgoing leader was even retained as a consultant to the incoming leader.

While much of the responsibility of a leadership transition rests on the shoulders of the board and search committee, organizational leaders have a part in the process as well. One of the leaders reflected that part of the responsibility belongs to the current Executive Director/CEO, such as making critical documents accessible and delegating tasks to others on the team so that the team can steady the ship knowledgeably once leadership transitions. The leader of the organization has the ability to set a helpful tone in early stages of the transition process so that not all responsibility of succession falls to the board.

 

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