By Tess Escay Reynolds, Leadership Advisor and Founder of On-Hand Leadership Partners
This is the second of two articles on succession planning by Tess Reynolds, the Consultant who conducted four-workshop series on the same topic in 2022-23. You can find the first article here and her blog post here.
Recap: The Seven Steps to a Successful Succession
Successful successions involve thoughtful planning. My model has seven steps that lead to a successful transition of the top executive, whom I refer to as the ED/CEO.
In the first article, I advised all to begin with the end in mind – organizational sustainability – and thread that end-goal through all seven steps.
The first article addressed the first four steps to a successful succession.
Step One: Conduct an organization sustainability assessment.
Step Two: Create an emergency succession plan.
Step Three: Build leadership development into your emergency succession plan.
Step Four: Work on personal readiness and create a predeparture plan.
The above four steps are advised for all organizations, regardless of whether or when the top executive is considering leaving their role. I also advise that the succession planning process includes a leadership development plan for key leaders who might be potential successors to the top executive – even if temporarily. In steps one to four, the current ED/CEO drives and manages the process; although, the Board may lead in insisting upon the creation of an emergency succession plan
Introduction: Part 2
This second article addresses steps five to seven, which happen after the top executive has decided to leave. Step Five addresses the Transition Plan, Step Six covers the Communication Plan, and Step Seven deals with onboarding the new leader and helping the departing leader “offboard” well. In steps five through seven, the Board becomes involved and is eventually the driver of the transition process, by leading the search, selection and onboarding of the new leader – while working closely with the current ED/CEO to ensure a smooth transition.
When the top executive communicates their intention to leave, the energy tends to gravitate towards finding a successor. Leaders and Boards alike must keep in mind that the focus of a transition is not a person but rather the organization itself and its long-term sustainability. Leaders come and go, some stay longer than others, but eventually leaders leave. Nonprofit organizations have existed for hundreds of years, likely because their leaders kept the organization’s mission and sustainability at the forefront.
The departure of the top executive is a big deal. ED/CEOs chart the course for the organization and are often its top ambassador for generating the resources needed to fulfill its mission. ED/CEOs also play a key role in shaping and evolving the culture and ethos of the organization. If the ED/CEO is a Founder, there is often a blurring of lines between the Founder’s identity and that of the organization. Leaders who have led for a decade or more are often considered “virtual Founders” in that they have likely reshaped strategy and expanded relationships, thus becoming part of the nonprofit’s identity.
The departure of the top executive can be daunting and scary. It can also be a great opportunity. New leaders bring in a fresh perspective and energy, and often take the organization to new places that their predecessors couldn’t. The departing leader, whether they are retiring or moving to another job, also has a new beginning that is exciting for them.
The transition between old and new is an opportunity not to be wasted. These final three steps to a successful transition can propel success for the new era – or, if done poorly, could cost the organization a few steps back in mission achievement. In the human services sector, real lives will be affected, positively or negatively, by a leadership transition. ED/CEOs and their Boards need to partner well to ensure a successful transition, for everyone’s benefit.
What defines a successful executive transition?
The Bridgespan Group recently conducted a study of executive transitions, with a focus on founder transitions. It measured successful transitions with three factors:
- Higher revenue growth through the transition (versus a control group);
- Retention of the successor for more than three years; and
- Self-reported performance.
Organizations fared better when executive transitions were thoughtfully done with adequate preparation. (The study also found that the most successful transition model was one that paired a founder in a continuing role with a successor from inside the organization. More details are in the footnoted article.)
Step Five: Create the Transition Plan
Once the ED/CEO has decided to leave, it is time to create a Transition Plan. If you are the departing ED/CEO, I recommend having a draft Transition Plan in hand when you inform your Board that you have decided to leave. They will panic. And then, they will calm down when they see that you have a good transition plan in mind.
A good transition plan has several phases:
- Quiet Phase – addresses the period between the ED/CEO informing the Board of their decision to leave, and the time when this decision is made public. The purpose of the Quiet Phase is to allow the Board time to organize themselves to lead the transition and the search for a new leader. (Search could be internal or external.)
- Public Phase – begins when ED/CEOs’ transition is publicly announced. The purpose of this phase is to engage the public’s support for the transition and, ultimately, for the organization’s long-term success. This phase overlaps with the next two.
- Search Phase – begins after the public announcement (or close to it), and ends when the next leader is hired and named. The search can be internal or external or both.
- Onboarding and Offboarding Phase – addresses the time when the current ED/CEO begins to relinquish their roles and responsibilities, and when the new leader begins. This phase overlaps a bit with the Search Phase, as onboarding and offboarding plans may be developed towards the end of the Search Phase. It typically ends after the new leader’s first 90 days, although some organizations may opt for a 180-day onboarding period.
Why can’t the ED/CEO lead the transition? First, it is the Board’s job to select the chief executive. It’s #2 in BoardSource’s Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards. Second, no matter how much the ED/CEO loves the organization, they carry the bias of the past and a desire to protect their legacy. When Boards are healthy and strong, they are the “conscience” of the organization and the best ones to advocate for its long-term success, even when that means letting go of some of the past.
The ED/CEO and the Board (represented by the Chair) need to stand united as the public voice of the transition. Mixed messages can create confusion among staff, donors, partners, and other key constituents – and confusion can sometimes lead to chaos, withdrawal, or both.
The announcement of an executive transition is not simply a statement that the current ED/CEO plans to leave. It is an opportunity to provide assurance, anticipate concerns, reaffirm mission and vision, and engage support for a successful transition.
Step Six: Create a good Communication Plan
A good communication plan must be developed in parallel to the Transition Plan. It’s not a discrete and sequential step, but rather, it is integral to a successful transition from beginning to end.
The Quiet Phase begins with a plan for informing the Board. The ED/CEO must make the choice of telling the whole Board at once, or informing one or two key Board members first and then cascading on to the rest of the Board. There are pros and cons to each approach, and the right answer depends on the nature of the ED/CEO’s Board relationships.
The Communication Plan must address both internal as well as external audiences. Internally, beyond the Board, communications to staff must also be planned thoughtfully. The ED/CEO’s transition may create anxiety for some, excitement for others, and often a bit of both. If the ED/CEO has good relationships with the Board and senior staff, they will have a sense of whom to approach when, and how. (In my blog post about my own succession, I discuss how I handled this.)
The elements of a good Communication Plan for a leadership transition are:
- Audience segmentation – Besides the Board and staff, major funders/donors might be one segment that requires personalized and deeper communication. Other donors might receive an “email blast” (even if personally addressed). They might be invited to an online forum or town hall meeting where they can ask questions. Program partners look different for each nonprofit, as do volunteers, alumni and program clients. Each audience segment has to be thoughtfully considered if you want their continued engagement and support during the transition and, more importantly, during the new leader’s term.
- Key Communicators – The ED/CEO can’t do it all, so a few Board members or key Executive staff may be invited to serve as key communicators to specific audiences. For example, Board members might divide among themselves the responsibility to communicate to past Board members who served over the last five (or ten) years. Board members and key executives may share the load of communicating with top donors and funders.
- Key Messages – With multiple communicators, it is important to agree on the key messages that must be consistent across all audiences and communication vehicles. Why is the ED/CEO leaving? How will the next leader be selected, and what’s the criteria for that new leader? What’s the anticipated timeline? And more.
- Communication vehicles – These might include face-to face meetings, phone calls, group meetings, personalized letters or email, an email ‘blast’ which can be somewhat personalized, a newsletter, social media posts, and so forth.
- FAQs (Frequently asked questions) – These are a list of anticipated questions with answers to guide the communicators. FAQs go beyond the key messages to specific questions that might be asked after the key messages are delivered. For example, if the departing leader needs to leave quickly, will an Interim ED/CEO be hired? FAQs help keep all communicators on the same page and minimize improvised answers.
- Implementation Timeline – This is a detailed plan for communicating to each audience, by whom, and with what communication vehicles.
A final word: no Communication Plan can adequately substitute for leadership voice and tone. The ED/CEO and their Board Chair must stand united with a calm, assuring voice that the organization is well cared for, and in no way being abandoned. Personal assurances matter, and they must be maintained no matter how long the transition takes.
Step Seven: Create a good Onboarding and Offboarding Plan
Passing the baton is not a one-minute event. There are two parts to the baton-passing: the onboarding of the new leader and the off-boarding of the departing leader.
Offboarding well begins long before the successor ED/CEO is identified. It is important to work on Step Four: Personal Readiness and Predeparture Plan before the transition announcement. One question I ask of ED/CEOs contemplating a transition is, “What kind of legacy would you like to have?” Answering that question often includes leaving well.
A good Offboarding-Onboarding Plan starts with defining:
- Will there be an overlap period between the current and the new leader?
- Will the past leader remain in some continuing role, such as an Advisor or a Board member?
- What specific role(s) will the past ED/CEO play in Onboarding their successor?
Good “offboarding” means that the departing leader does only the roles they’ve been asked to do and no more, while also remaining available to support the new leader in any way. Some good advice for departing leaders include:
- Vacate your office and make it ready for the new leader from their first day.
- Personally introduce the new leader to top funders, donors and other key relationships. The Communication Plan’s list of key audiences should help identify who are “key.”
- Codify immediate priorities and key events that impact the new leader’s calendar and short-term To-Do list.
- From the new leader’s Day One, let them lead. Let them be the main voice at all meetings. Let them answer the questions first. Let them tell you what they need.
The new leader’s Onboarding is best planned and led by the Board, or the People Operations staff, or both. Onboarding topics include meeting key constituents, becoming familiar with the strategic plan and operating systems, and setting 90-day goals jointly with the new leader.
Departing leaders often feel responsible for transferring their many years of knowledge about the organization. I recommend resisting this, and allowing others to share in that knowledge transfer. The new leader should also be allowed the chance to pull that knowledge because it is impossible to absorb all that’s pushed at them at the onset. Pulling knowledge from many people also helps the new leader build relationships.
Passing the baton can be a bit of a dance. When in doubt as to who should lead, both the departing leader and the new leader should ask, “What would be in the best interests of the organization?”
To have a successful succession, start with some groundwork: the first four of our Seven Steps to a Successful Succession. Once the ED/CEO has decided to leave, the organization is ready for steps five, six and seven, which engage the Board and other key leaders in the transition work.
While much is focused on the ED/CEO leaving their role at the organization, equal if not greater focus should be on the organization itself. The end-goal of successful successions is organization sustainability. Great care must be taken by all involved to shore up the organization before any leadership transition is apparent, during the quiet and public phases and the search period, and for at least 90 days after the leadership transition.
“What would be in the best interest of the organization?” should be the centering call throughout the transition. A nonprofit organization exists to benefit the community and society. Its ability to sustain itself and its mission must be first and foremost for everyone involved.