Mission Driven Leadership Transitions

A significant generational leadership transition is already taking place in the nonprofit sector, which will continue to accelerate over the next decade. This presents both challenges and opportunities to a nonprofit’s ability to sustain and enhance mission impact and creates a powerful incentive for departing nonprofit CEO’s and boards to develop mission driven processes that maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks a leadership transition presents.

Having been deeply involved in such a process in my recent transition from the position of Executive Director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP), A Tale from the Trenches: Lessons Learned in MANP’s Leadership Transition, I’ve developed a strong interest in helping nonprofit staff and board leaders facilitate effective mission driven transitions. Its an area I hope to engage in more deeply with my involvement with Starboard Leadership Consulting, as I’ve seen first hand the multiple benefits a thoughtful, well planned transition can have on a nonprofit’s mission impact.

From my experience, the essential elements necessary for an effective leadership transition are:

  • An open communication process between the CEO and the Board – the more time an organization has to effect a transition, the better chance it has to achieve multiple positive outcomes. As such, I would urge board leaders to engage in conversations with their CEO’s about future plans at least annually, and for CEO’s to do the same with their boards, as gaining awareness creates the best opportunity for developing a thoughtful transition process. This kind of transparency also puts a leadership transition in its proper context as a natural and healthy occurrence in an organization and keeps the best interests of your mission at the forefront.
  • Keep mission at the center of the process – while leadership transitions can feel scary for boards, particularly when the departing CEO has been an effective leader, they also present tremendous opportunities to revisit the essence of why your nonprofit exists—its mission. Even well run nonprofits can fall into the trap of being too dependent on effective CEO’s and putting people above mission, so use the transition time as an opportunity for staff and board to get reconnected to your mission, re-visit how the organization is trying to achieve its goals, and build broader ownership from staff and board.
  • Take a step back before you take one forward – as you plan for a transition, develop a strategic plan as your organizational roadmap, and, in doing so, assess where your most significant threats are and where opportunities might lie to further your mission more effectively before jumping into a hiring process. This process will not only help your board better understand the qualities and skills it needs to be looking for in its next CEO, it will help to engage your board more fully, identify board recruitment needs and provide your new CEO with a roadmap to follow as you bring them onboard.
  • Build board engagement and leadership – a leadership transition should serve as a wake-up call to a board that has fallen into the complacency that having an effective CEO can engender. Use the opportunity to develop a vision for the future that folks can get excited about, assess whether you have the right people around the table to achieve your goals, and develop a structure for enhanced engagement and leadership development. A leadership transition is a great time to build a board that can take an organization to its next level of mission impact.
  • Develop the leadership potential of staff – an impending leadership transition is also an opportune time for a departing CEO to look at the organization from an objective point of view and engage staff in discussions about job responsibilities and organizational structure. This process can lead to opportunities to re-engineer organizational structure, create leadership development opportunities and increase staff engagement.
  • Build an organizational culture of learning and support – the best organizations are always thinking about succession and leadership development for both their staff and board. Use your transition as an opportunity to begin developing that kind of organizational culture for your nonprofit. Develop a mentoring or ”board buddy” system for new board members, create agendas that engage higher level strategic discussions about your mission, support your new CEO’s on-boarding process by hiring an experienced coach or mentor, and develop your staff ‘s leadership potential by encouraging them to identify goals and funding a professional development budget to support them.

A changing of the guard offers nonprofits an incredible opportunity to assess themselves critically, build enhanced levels of ownership on the staff and board levels and re-energize the organization for its next chapter. Transitions should be viewed as a perfect storm of opportunity, so focus on the possibilities, because in this challenging environment it will be the organizations that are constantly evolving that will be most successful in achieving their goals.

Consulting Partner, Scott Schnapp, authored this blog post for Starboard Leadership Consulting. For more leadership transition advice, visit our website: www.starboardleadership.com or get in touch with us now using our contact form.