Success in CEO Transitions - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Success in CEO Transitions

Imagine you are running your first marathon. Coming up on the final mile, your energy is flagging, but you know you can make it. Then, all of a sudden, you see a sign that reads “Finish line 4 miles ahead.” Whether you could physically make it or not is beside the point now. Your mental image of the challenge has been upended, and you feel like 4 miles might as well be 40.

We see this over and over with nonprofit and foundation board members’ expectations of a leadership transition. They are exhausted by the search and hiring process and have no juice left over to provide the comprehensive off-boarding and on-boarding activities that can be the crucial link to smooth succession.

During the summer of 2014, Olive Grove Consulting and Vista Global Coaching & Consulting partnered to conduct a national study on leadership succession and transition planning in the nonprofit sector. Sixteen in-depth interviews and 204 survey responses confirmed the anecdotal evidence that transition activities after the hire of the new CEO get short shrift and that this is an area where nonprofits and foundations need considerable support if they are to have successful leadership transitions.

Some challenges highlighted in the study included:

  • Confusion about and tension around the role, in any, that the departing CEOs would have going forward.
  • Lost organizational momentum as the new CEO struggles to get up to speed.
  • Board burnout when they feel like yet another task has been dropped on their plate after exhausting search processes.
  • Lost institutional knowledge and external relationships when there is not a process to transfer these components.
  • Poor morale and distrust of new leadership if the leader appears to be uninformed about key aspects of the organization.

A comprehensive and effective transition process should encompass both off-boarding of the departing CEO and on-boarding of the new CEO.

Whereas most people grasp the importance of on-boarding, they are less sure about why they should spend their time on off-boarding activities for the departing CEO. Consider it from the point of view that everyone your organization touches is a potential brand ambassador.

The departing CEO may be your biggest ally in the future. You are not closing the door on your relationship with this person, just on the chapter of their tenure as your leader. Celebrating their impact and acknowledging their contribution to the organization is not just good form, it’s a good investment.

In terms of on-boarding we have found, from our work with clients and from our national study, that the most important activities to ensure a smooth transition include:

  • Coaching for the incoming CEO and board chair to shape expectations and facilitate clear and frequent communication.
  • Guidance for the board on management of transition communication. It’s especially important to understand your multiple audiences and tailor communication accordingly.
  • Shared understanding of the key priorities for the new CEO. Everyone should agree on what can go on the backburner and what must remain front and center.

A successful leadership transition means pacing yourself so that you can provide effective off-boarding and on-boarding support. It also means understanding the value in devoting energy to this final push after the hire of a new CEO. Successful transitions are about more than handing off a “transition” binder or checking off activities. Successful transitions are about conveying the history of the organization and instilling a passion for the mission in a new leadership who can build on the legacy of their predecessor.

Anthony Tansimore, Olive Grove’s vice president of leadership impact, has more than 25 years experience as a senior leader in the nonprofit sector, including top positions at MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), San Francisco Foundation, and the Fannie Mae Foundation. In addition, as an experienced search consultant, he has conducted numerous searches for C-level leaders in foundations and national nonprofits, and brings a keen sense of key operational roles in organizations. 


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