Over the last few years one of my favorite assignments is working with small nonprofits in their search for a new executive director. I have developed a process that is very effective in identifying and coming to mutual agreement with outstanding ED candidates. But frankly, I haven’t thought much about the transitional phase nonprofits go through in the time between permanent EDs… until now. I currently chair the Search Committee for a new pastor for my church congregation. This is a huge and humbling responsibility and fortunately I am part of an extremely capable Search Committee. The Church’s governing body has hired an interim pastor and he is not involved in nor can be a candidate for our next permanent pastor according to our church rules. However, reconciling the past and preparing for the future are part of what is in his contract. I have read his contract over and over and I am impressed with some of the listed responsibilities. Here are some highlights:
The interim period is seen as prime time for renewal, re-energizing the parish in its life and mission.
Specific tasks include:
1) Coming to terms with the history of the congregation and its relationships with previous clergy.
2) Discovering the congregation's special identity, what it dreams of being and doing apart from previous clergy leadership.
3) Dealing with shifts in leadership roles that naturally evolve in times of transition, allowing new leaders to come to the fore constructively.
4) Renewing and reworking relationships with the Diocese, so that each may be a more effective resource and support to the other.
5) Building commitment to the leadership of the new rector in order to be prepared to move into the future with openness to new possibilities.
Wow! That’s a pretty big order. But guess what, if done right it lays a lot of groundwork for the future success of our new pastor who will be called to lead our congregation.
All of this has made me think of how important this transition phase is to nonprofits – especially small and mid size organizations. This is a time of uncertainty and it can me marked by anxiety, impulsive change by temporary leaders, reduced fundraising, etc., etc.. Or it can be a time of understanding who you have been, who you are now, and what are your dreams of becoming. It should be a time of “renewing and reworking” your relationships with major funders and key supporters. And it should be a time of preparation for willingness to adapt to a new leader with a new approach, personality, style and goals.
I have seen transitions to new executive directors both as a Board member and as a consultant. They can be smooth, rocky, invigorating or ineffective. This process I am going through now is helping me to understand that the transition time is an important one that can provide the setup for success. It should be appreciated in its own right and fully taken advantage of.
Each transition to a new Executive Director is unique and therefore the plan for each must also be unique. You may be hiring a first executive director or replacing a founder who ran the place “his way” for the last 25 years. The ED may have quit after a short tenure even though the Board thought she was perfect for the job or may have left under less than ideal circumstances. The ED may have just left for a better paying job closer to home. No matter what the circumstances, make sure you aren’t reactionary and the transition for the new person is as valuable as possible.
Here are just a few thoughts on this matter for boards to help with the transition.
Conduct and Exit Interview
There are basic HR functions that should occur with an exit process but in addition at least two Board members should interview an exiting ED in order to gain insight that will be helpful with the next ED. You should ask about any key concerns that the person has with the organization and Board and what they see as the organizational priorities.
What Needs to be Accomplished in the Interim
Based on the unique issues facing your organization, develop a clear list of responsibilities and goals for the Interim ED. Make it more than just “keeping the ship afloat.”
If there are currents of unhappiness with the leaving of the last ED, try to have communication that can bring closure. This can be difficult if there were personnel, ethical or legal issues involved but communicating about the Board’s commitment to the mission and the future should be addressed. Share the process and hoped for timeline for a new ED to be in place with staff, funders, volunteers and supporters. Encourage contact with the interim leadership.
This is a good time to hold meetings with your various constituents to see how they view the issues and priorities for the organization. This information can be helpful as you get further into your search process and what you are looking for in a new ED takes on more clarity.
The Right Welcome
The Board needs to take a leadership role in welcoming the new ED. Make sure it is announced with fanfare – press release, email blast and reception. Board members should accompany the new ED on a first visit to funders and major donors.
I am considering developing a model for a “Transition Retreat for Boards and Other Constituents. What do you think? What do you suggest I include in such a model?