Fairmount Ventures has been conducting executive searches for nonprofits for years, but we have seen a marked increase in the last several as the generational shift in leadership accelerates. Long-term leaders often become synonymous with an organization such that it is hard to imagine anyone else in their seats. Yet, the existential moments that accompany significant change are wonderful times for organizational and personal resets that should not be wasted. Here are a few points we’ve learned along the way.
1. Start early by assessing the management structure
Organizational structures are often built around personal strengths or time-specific necessity. Leading up to a transition, evaluate whether the current structure and portfolio of responsibilities for all members of your leadership team are optimal for the future. One retiring, 30-year veteran with whom we worked had 8 direct reports in addition to being the institution’s outside face. A year before the search began, we restructured the leadership team, reduced the number of direct reports, and clarified the key responsibilities of the next CEO. This made the search more directed and successful.
2. Give the parting executive the gift of possibility
Long-term nonprofit executives pour their all into their organization, so it is understandable that stepping back and down can be emotionally fraught. Many go through a cycle of approach-avoidance as their thoughts navigate between what is optimal for the organization and determining their path in unchartered territory. A great resource for an energizing self-examination of what’s next is the book, What Color Is Your Parachute? for Retirement: Planning a Prosperous, Healthy, and Happy Future. Uncoupling what is best for the organization and the executive will lead to better avenue’s for both.
3. Examine the board’s role and structure
Boards become reliant on long-term executives to handle a lot. The Boards leadership will need to play a more active role throughout succession, and as the new executive becomes acclimated. Just as the transition to a new executive is a time to re-evaluate the management structure, so too is it a time to consider the board’s role, and therefore its committee structure. The new CEO will bring a fresh perspective ad new ideas: how will they be vetted and decide when the Board’s input is warranted? Should a program committee be activated to work with the executive to consider the lines of service? Should the finance or development committee consider the business model?
4. Honor the past, but embrace a fresh start
Ask yourselves: if we were starting from scratch, is this the way we would do ‘X’? If the answer is no, think about how the leadership transition creates a window for improvement. One organization used the arrival of a new executive to change its cumbersome name to a high-octane, forward-facing one through a careful re-branding process. Could/should they have done so years ago? Sure, but it took the leadership change to look at themselves afresh. The new executive was also able to use the rebranding process to introduce herself and form relationships with key funders and other stakeholders.
What’s your experience with preparing for your next great leader? We’d love to hear your thoughts so we can pass them on to others. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org