Successful Executive Transitions: The Short-Term Plan

4 minute read

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

Planning for a successful executive transition is a critical component of strategic planning for all organizations, and is key to sustainability. This article series explores the 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.


It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.  –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again

Will your organization be prepared if your CEO has a health, family, or other emergency?

Earlier in this article series, we established that an executive transition is inevitable. Drawing from Tolkien, when we plan for the challenge of change, we will be more prepared to address it. Consider the possibilities.

Succession planning includes both short- and long-term planning. Having each in place assures the long-term sustainability of the organization. The board of directors and the organization’s executive leadership is responsible for making sure that the viability of the organization is supported by strategic planning that accounts for an emergency, unexpected transition as well as a planned succession.

None of us like to think that something might happen to us rendering us unable to work. We also know that accidents happen and our health can be fragile – all of us are subject to life’s unexpected interruptions. Our organizations should always be ready for such a possibility. Achieving our mission in the midst of transition depends upon our readiness.

That said, what can we do to prepare? In this article, we focus on the short-term strategy. A short-term plan prepares the organization’s board and leadership team for an unexpected or temporary absence of its leader for about two to four months. If longer, the organization is well served to have an “interim” executive director role filled by a senior manager or through a placement agency. Whereas a long-term strategy focuses on the succession of its chief executive that includes a plan for replacing her/him, the organization might employ its short term strategy as it plans and prepares for the new executive to assure stability and its focus on its mission.

Short-term plans may be adapted to fit an emergency, offer a contingency, or fill a planned absence for an executive taking extended leave. When I was executive director in my previous organization, I was fortunate to receive a Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Sabbatical. To prepare for my time away, we made a plan that enabled the organization to continue through my four-month absence. I involved the board in decision making regarding who would have responsibility and the role that senior management staff would and could play to assure a smooth and stable period. Having this short-term, planned absence gave me and the organization the opportunity to consider what an executive transition and change might look like and how to prepare for it.

What are the critical aspects of a short-term contingency plan that best prepares us for an expected or unexpected leadership change? At its best, such a plan minimizes and manages risk and offers an opportunity to consider how a change in leadership might affect the organization. Before the interruption occurs, it is good to begin with a few questions and planning tools.

  • Who will do XYZ tasks in the event of a planned or unplanned leave by the executive?   
  • Who has “signing” authority in the absence of the CEO?
  • Who will be a public spokesperson for the organization in the event of a media inquiry?
  • Who will have primary responsibility for interacting with the board of directors?
  • Should there be a salary adjustment for the interim executive if a senior leader within the organization is asked to fill this role?
  • Who will communicate and interact with donors and public officials who support the organization?

When I arrived at the Center, meeting so many new employees at once and wanting to become oriented as soon as possible, I asked, who does what? Fortunately, we had some systems in place that helped to efficiently answer this question. Each staff member has a “red folder” that identifies key tasks by role within the organization outlined in greater detail than a job description. In addition, we have a summary outline of “who does what.”

I found this approach helpful as an incoming executive, and we continue to use and refine these tools. We now have positions and tasks on a spreadsheet that is regularly updated, and we use this to orient new employees, as well as one of our succession planning tools. Having such a system in place in the event of an unplanned, emergency, or short absence of an executive helps board and staff maintain stability during the interim.

Even for a short period of time, there are many tasks that must be done to keep the organization solvent, stable, and mission-focused. To plan for the interim, it would be helpful to have a template and written plan that highlights important dates and deadlines, and how decisions can and will be made.

The Center’s Information Central has several templates and guides for planned and unplanned executive change.

Center members also have access to free one-on-one guidance and advice from executive transition consultants through our Executive Transition Pro Bono Program.

While there is a plethora of online resources and consultants available to assist with developing a short- or long-term succession plan, the most important thing is to acknowledge that anything can happen. Being prepared will save a lot of time, money, and worry. In some cases, it will help the organization survive and remain focused on its mission.


Read other articles in this Successful Executive Transitions series: Embracing the Inevitable and Relationships with the Board and Succession Planning in a Time of Uncertainty and From the Desk of an Interim President/CEO and EDI and the Executive Search

Find additional resources and templates on succession planning in Information Central.


Human Resources
Organizational Development
Strategic Planning
Succession Planning