Successful Executive Transitions: A Series on Embracing the Inevitable

7 minute read

Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

The North Carolina Center for Nonprofits had an initiative many years ago on the importance of planning for executive succession, including the report Countdown to the Inevitable: North Carolina Nonprofit CEOs in Transition. This body of work led to the Center’s Executive Transitions Pro Bono Program, and the lessons shared then continue to ring true today.

Planning for a successful executive transition continues to be a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations, and is key to sustainability. That’s why we’re dedicating a series of articles – in which this is the first – focused on succession planning. The series will explore steps and roles to assure successful transitions; challenges that arise and how to be adaptive; approaches when long-time and founding executives leave versus when the executive is no longer a good fit for the organization; when and how to use a search firm; and how to infuse equity throughout the transition process.

The foremost lesson to learn and keep in the front of the organization is that it is inevitable the leader will leave. Embracing the inevitable is key to success in planning for succession. Every organization should have a succession plan that meets a short-term unplanned exit, as well as a long-term plan that recognizes the reality of leadership changes.

While there are helpful guidelines on how to prepare for the inevitable, organizations are as unique and diverse as the executives who lead them, so transition planning should take into consideration the culture and community in which the organization operates. Having been through what I have felt to be successful transitions, I share here some of what I experienced and my perspective on making a healthy transition.

Let’s begin.

The executive director has just informed her board chair that she has accepted a new position and will be leaving in one month. Now what?

A successful executive leadership transition is not an accidental journey. Clear planning, consideration of all parties involved, and continuous focus on the organization’s mission helps ensure success. Leadership changes within an organization are often bittersweet. Through this experience there is opportunity for the organization to refresh and reset with new ideas and approaches. For the outgoing executive, there is opportunity to let go and leave behind a stable, strong organization that will succeed beyond her exit. For the incoming executive, there will be organizational challenges to meet and staff expectations to manage.

There are many vantage points to be considered in executive transition. I have the unique perspective of being a co-founding executive director leaving Passage Home after almost 30 years, and joining the Center as the successor to a founder who had also been with her organization for about the same period. I was both stepping away and stepping in. This required both letting go and embracing. Emotional and practical considerations had to be weighed; I was leaving a team to which I was very attached, joining a team that had a long history with their founder. Long used to intuitively knowing my job and having a comfortable familiarity with it, I entered into a new situation with a deep learning curve. While daunting at times, overall, it was exciting and refreshing. I had the good fortune of joining a highly competent team at the Center that was very welcoming.

Long before I gave notice to my board chair that I would be leaving, I had considered how I would want to leave this organization that I had grown from its inception. I knew I wanted it to be more than stable when I left. For me, this meant that the organization would have the financial and human resources and equity in its name and reputation to carry it through the change. While I would be leaving, the organization had to have strong underlying management and a board of directors who could guide and support it through the changes. For this to happen, I focused on building the bench strength of our leadership team who had reported to me over the years. This team should have the competence and willingness to step in if needed, under a planned or unplanned exit. Building the organization's bench strength through management training, mentoring, and coaching supports an executive’s transition. At Passage Home, I tried to support leadership from within and as a result, had the benefit of low staff turnover with many working with me for more than a decade. We worked well together and I was confident that if I stepped away, the leadership, with support from the board, could sustain the operations pending the hiring of a new executive.

In transition planning, we often focus on who the new executive is going to be. While this is important, in reality and most of the time, there is a period between the time the outgoing and incoming executives are in place. During this time, it is the person who is second in management who often knows the most about the day-to-day intricacies of the organization. This is the person who will reassure the staff and the board as personnel changes are made. The strength and stability of the transition period will often fall on this person, and supporting those in this position is a critical aspect of good transition planning. This can be done by identifying a senior leader as an “interim” executive with additional compensation that correlates with the expected increase in responsibilities. The board chair can establish regular meetings to check on how staff and programs are managing, and the board can take time to affirm this leader’s role with both staff and board. If this person chooses not to apply for the executive role, she becomes the surrogate and often assumes full responsibility while the board does its work to find a successor.

At Passage Home, the chief program officer became interim executive director during the hiring process. At the Center, the senior vice president became interim executive director while the board sought a successor to its founder. From my perspective, these senior leaders were key factors in the successful transition for both organizations.

In retrospect, I think both organizations made a successful and healthy transition. Inherent for me at the Center was the support of its founding executive director, Jane Kendall, who met with me and assured me that I would have access to her in the event of any questions. She was able to share with me her historical and institutional knowledge of the organization. I did the same for my successor when he was hired at Passage Home. If the outgoing founding director is able to do this in a positive and healthy manner, it offers the incoming executive director the opportunity for placing in context information about the organization that may not be readily apparent. In a positive transition, this communication can be most helpful.

Even though I had made the decision to exit, I was challenged by my own emotions in leaving behind friends and colleagues to whom I had grown close over 30 years. We shared family stories, we watched our children grow, we supported each other through illness, and at times, even mourned the death of those we loved. In retrospect, it would have been helpful for me to have identified in advance of my exit a colleague or coach with whom I could have shared these feelings of loss.

Considering that this was my first employment change in almost 30 years, I was not sure what to expect. The board can play a helpful role by initiating conversations that invite the outgoing executive to share what they might need to support their transition, and I encourage the board chair or others from the board of directors to include this in their transition planning and process. I was fortunate to have friends and family to support and celebrate with me as I made this change. And, the board of directors at the Center were consistently supportive and available if and when I needed them. Once situated in my new role at the Center, I retained a coach for an interim period, allowing me a sounding board. Practicing self-care is always important as it influences how well we are able to care for those around us.

The focus of the board and staff from the organization where the executive is leaving is quickly on the organization itself and what they will need to fill the gaps and carry on. The search or transition committee of the board becomes hyper-focused on both who will lead in the interim and for the long term. While this focus is so important for the organization’s survival and sustainability, it is also important for the organization to take the time to recognize all that has been achieved during the leader’s tenure with the organization.

Recognizing the outgoing executive in both formal and informal ways communicates to the staff, to the board, and to the community the value the leader has brought to the organization. I was very fortunate to have a staff that took the time to formally thank me for all I had given to them and the organization over the years. Doing this, in my view, helps support a healthy transition and shows the incoming executive the value the board and staff see in the person holding the organization's leadership position. This is an important aspect of the transition as it sets the stage for the incoming executive and the shift in leadership that will naturally occur.

The next article in this series will address the ways the board chair and the executive director can work together to plan for a successful transition.


Read more articles in this Successful Executive Transitions series: Relationships with the Board and The Short-Term Plan and Succession Planning in a Time of Uncertainty and From the Desk of an Interim President/CEO and EDI and the Executive Search


For more guidance on executive transitions, talk one-on-one with an expert through our Executive Transitions Pro Bono Program, and visit Information Central for resources and templates.


Strategic Planning
Succession Planning