Management Matters: Executive Board Succession - the Best and Worst of Times

With every change there is opportunity and risk, and few situations bring that as sharply into view as when your Board hires a new Executive Director. As an English major, I often look to the great works of literature for metaphors. Charles Dickens’ first sentence from A Tale of Two Cities is apt when thinking about an Emergency Executive Board Succession Plan. It begs the question – are you ready to leverage the opportunity if you need to find a Board ED quickly?

While succession planning has emerged as a critical strategy for maintaining and organization’s health, many organizations fall short of creating an Executive Succession Plan (let alone a plan for an emergency). Signs indicate that it may be tempting the fates to ignore this issue. With the shifting demographics easing Baby Boomers into eventual retirement, a significant increase in turnover in nonprofit executive leadership is looming and several national studies indicate that the turnover rate in the next five years could be as high as 90%.An Annie E. Casey Foundation survey of their nonprofit grantees revealed that while more than 60% of their grantee executives are over 50, those who would be next in line for the ED position have no intention of assuming the ED role. Although 2/3 of current executives surveyed plan to leave their positions within 5 years, less than half of them have any kind of formal succession plan.

Actionable Steps

Hiring a new Executive Director can provide a Board with the opportunity to assess the current needs of the organization, develop a consensus for the organization’s mission and vision, and make a strategic hire that can bring a renewed sense of energy to and a new opportunities for success. It does not have to immobilizing.While it can seem to be an overwhelming task, it is actually a series of actionable steps:

  • Assess the organization to determine leadership priorities
  • Create a Transition Team that guides the search process
  • Create and post a job description and review applicants. Screen and determine the top candidates
  • If necessary, name an Interim ED, and support their efforts while making the transition
  • Create an accelerated on-ramp for the new ED’s engagement.

While many organizations want to minimize, eliminate, or avoid the stress that comes with transition, it is actually a great time to leverage the talent and creativity that exists within your organization. That can be done by:

Creating an Interim Leader – Someone who has no stake in the search for a new ED can fill a leadership role and allow everyone to catch their breath between the departure of the old and the arrival of the new.

Assessingthe Organization – Determine the needs of the organization. Create a list of the things that need to get done so that when a job description is created and interviews are conducted, you are dealing with how things really are, not how they used to be or how you wish they were.

Spruce Up – Focus the organization on taking care of all the things that haven’t gotten done so that when the new ED starts, they focus on moving everyone forward.

Toss the Old – Now is the time to get rid of the out dated software, old job descriptions, and anything else that looks dated and worn. Think of it as moving on and up. It’s as if the new ED is moving into a new home and making it their own – they will want set the tone of their tenure. Do everything you can to make sure the beginning starts of on the best foot possible.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Communicate in a variety of ways with every stakeholder (staff, clients, funders, supporters, volunteers) regularly so they know that things are moving along and being handled. Don’t wait until everything is over and completed. People like to know that things are being managed well.

Yeah But –

Don’t’ have time to consider an ED Succession Plan or craft an Emergency Succession Plan? No problem! Poor or nonexistent planning can result in an interruption of services, a loss of existing and potential funding, and a disruption for staff and community. If you have volunteers on your Board who serve in their available ‘nonworking’ time, they may be unprepared, unwilling, or unable to manage the challenge and extra time) required that a transition disruption creates for a nonprofit organization. Missteps in hiring a new ED can cost you staff, services, funding, and the reputation that your organization has worked so hard to attain. So why worry about it, right?!

An effective Emergency ED Succession Plan allows an organization to seize the day and take advantage of a pivotal moment in its history. An organization that has a professional approach to succession has a better chance of attracting the best candidates. The best candidates can, in turn, create a renewed sense of energy and excitement for the future. You can take what may seem like the ‘worst of times’ and make it the ‘best of times.’

Joni Daniels is Principal of Daniels & Associates, a management training and development consulting practice that specializes in developing human resources in the areas of leadership and management training, interpersonal effectiveness and efficiency, skill- building, and organizational development interventions. With over 25 years of experience, she is a sought after resource for Fortune 500 clients, professional organizations, higher education, media outlets and business publications. Joni can be reached at

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