Planning for Leadership Transition
It’s not as scary as you think.
If there is one inevitability in the workforce, it is turnover. Frightfully, turnover in leadership positions happens and happens often. While there is no such thing as a magic wand, these spooky transitions can be easier to manage with proper planning.
Transition planning is different than succession planning, at least for the purposes of this blog. Succession planning focuses on identifying successors for key positions and preparing them to step into their predecessors’ shoes. While succession planning is ideal, it isn’t the norm and typically a resignation or retirement results in the need to actively recruit a new leader.
Whether the search is conducted through a firm, an HR department, or a committee, it can take as long as six to nine months to successfully recruit a new executive. During this timeframe, it is essential to establish a functional management structure to keep the cobwebs from forming.
Select an Interim Leader – this may be an existing staff member, a previous leader, or even a board member (on leave from the board).
Use the Team Approach – a colleague in transition recently established a collaborative team of existing staff members to oversee key areas including operations, communications, fundraising, community, board, internal activities, and volunteers so that no one person held all the responsibilities.
Co-Lead – divide the respective tasks amongst two or three key individuals who can oversee without a burdensome impact to their regular duties.
Regardless of which model is utilized, beware that “interim syndrome” can create devilish challenges. Treading water until the new leader is in place can lead to organizational paralysis and even deterioration if not carefully managed. On the flip side, if the arrival of the new leader is eminent, there is no need to rush critical decisions. Balance is key – maintaining forward motion without making choices that may need to be undone down the road.
What is crucial, especially in a fund-raising organization, is to carefully identify the areas that need to be addressed by interim management. Ideally, the departing leader will facilitate this process and create opportunities for success (rather than going screaming into the night!).
This entails prioritizing key tasks, managing internal and external relationships, establishing processes for fiduciary oversight and approvals, and importantly, creating a safe atmosphere for remaining staff members who inevitably will feel the wicked stress inherent in change.
Key considerations, before, during, and after transition, include:
Maintain trust through consistent and transparent communication with all constituency groups.
Make documentation a priority so the new leader can easily follow key discussions, decisions, and next steps.
Establish a timeline for communication and essential tasks to be completed.
Create solid messaging that can be utilized internally and externally.
Once the new leader is identified, initiate a warm welcome, setting the stage for success:
Develop a plan for smooth onboarding.
Execute transitional strategies with confidence.
Allow for an overlap with the interim leader or team to create authentic opportunities for introductions to key stakeholders.
Establish 30-, 60-, and 90-day priorities (the honeymoon phase).
Debrief on key issues or initiatives.
A respected colleague of mine once said that “a new leader should wear out a pair of shoes before initiating major changes.” This speaks to the importance of doing a lot of walking, talking, and listening in the early months as well as being patient while formulating new ideas. Given the quality of shoe leather today, this may or may not be a practical guideline, but the concept of carefully managing leadership transition into and out of an organization is sound advice and not nearly as scary as it sounds.
Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their mission.