No board chair I’ve ever met has taken on the role of chair with the hope of leading a search process for a new executive director or CEO. The chair’s job can be demanding enough without the prospect of handling all aspects of a leadership transition and executive search. Yet transition is a reality, and you can’t always control the timing.
As board chair, the pressures and stress that come with an unplanned or unexpected transition can be especially challenging, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to focus on planned transitions…those leadership transitions where your executive director tells you that he or she will be leaving in six months or more (and not 6 weeks, or 6 days!).
You’ve probably figured out that while the board chair must take the lead in ensuring there will be a successful search process and outcome, you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, unless you want this to turn into a full-time job, it will be essential to delegate responsibilities to other board members. Note here that I don’t suggest you can delegate to staff…you really can’t. This is one of the rare roles that the board can’t dodge.
What follows is a list of those things you can do as board chair to get this transition off on the right foot:
- Help the board and staff appreciate the importance of continuing to move the organization forward. The organization cannot afford to “tread water.” Help people to see this transition as an opportunity—not a traumatic event. This should be a time when you are working with the board and staff to further strengthen the organization and prepare for the next leader.
- Choose wisely in selecting who will chair the search committee. While it is certainly ok for the board chair to lead the search, selecting a well-regarded and capable board member to do this will take some weight off your shoulders. Consider serving on the committee but letting someone else handle the details of chairing it. Your appointment of a respected chair will help to put people at ease.
- Provide your search committee chair with the support he/she will need in order to be successful. I’ll suggest that this is one of those times when it is best not to ask for volunteers. Work together with the chair to recruit and appoint a search committee in which you will have confidence. Also give serious consideration to engaging a search consultant to support the search process. The stakes are high, and you need to get this right the first time. It will be easier to recruit a chair and committee members if you can offer them professional help.
- Let your strategic plan be your guide. With the strategic plan in front of you, lead the board through a discussion that asks, “If we are going to achieve our aspirations—our vision—over the next 5 years, what kind of skills and abilities will we prioritize as we seek our next leader?” You want to get everyone on the same page.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. One more time: communicate. This can be a time of incredible uncertainty, and uncertainty can cause the organization to appear fragile and prompt employees to begin exploring other options. Take on the role of “chief communicator” and don’t worry about over-communicating. You can’t.
- Develop a transition committee. A transition committee is not the same as the search committee. This will be a group of people—board members, staff, volunteers—who will make sure you celebrate the accomplishments of your departing leader and help the next leader get off to the very best start possible. (Information about forming a transition committee can be found in the “Leadership Transitions” section of our Starboard website: starboardleadership.com.)
- Partner with the new leader. From the moment he or she accepts your job offer, the board chair will play a crucial role in ensuring a successful transition.
Throughout this process, your role as chair can easily feel like it has become a full-time job. You need to maintain your relationship with the outgoing CEO, work closely with the search committee, engage in the process of attracting candidates, negotiate with the finalist, and ensure that a successful transition strategy is in place and being implemented—all while continuing your regular role as the chair. It can definitely feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to go it alone.
Actively engage the rest of the board, and consider seeking help from a search consultant. The stakes in executive recruitment are high and the consequences of failure significant. Investing in the expertise you need to conduct a successful search and leadership transition may prove to be the best investment you have ever made!
This blog post was authored by Jeff Wahlstrom. For more information about managing a leadership transition or conducting a search, visit www.starboardleadership.com or begin the conversation now by contacting us today.