In episode 54 of Mission: Impact, Carol celebrates the podcast’s two year anniversary by doing a best of episode about executive leadership transitions. We talk about:
Guests and Resources:
Carol Hamilton: Today’s episode of Mission Impact is a little different. To celebrate my two year Pod-iversary, I am doing another “best of episode.” Today’s podiversary episode focuses on leadership transitions - a topic that has been the focus of several interviews. We will be hearing from Elizabeth Woolfe, Carlyn Madden, Don Tebbe and Andy Robinson. We talk about the types of transitions that organizations experience and how different leaders approach those transitions, why it is so important for leaders to make space and groom the next generation of leaders, whether or not having an interim executive director is a good idea, and how those exiting the leadership role and those entering as new leaders can prepare themselves for their new chapter.
Mission Impact is the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. I’m Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and nonprofit strategic planning consultant. On this podcast we explore how to make your organization more effective and innovative. We dig into how to build organizational cultures where your work in the world is aligned with how you work together as staff, board members and volunteers. All of this is for the purpose of creating greater mission impact.
Leadership transitions come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of factors will go into what type of transition the organization is facing. One of those is the attitude of the leader, others include the lifestage of the nonprofit – is it a start up? In a growth spurt? Is this the first transition from the organization’s founder? Has there been ongoing transition on the board side, not just the staff side of the organization?
Don Tebbe is a leading expert in nonprofit leadership transitions and with Tom Adams in many ways founded the field of executive transition management. He has written several books on the subject and we will link to those in the show notes. He talks about what inspired him to focus on this aspect of nonprofit management.
Don Tebbe: In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I was trying to figure out why I was attracted to this, to this nonprofit sector work. But it just seemed like a great place. To really, to do work that's meaningful. And that's one of the things I discovered in doing the research on callings is that everybody has this innate desire for a meaningful life.
Tom and I put together this program two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors, cuz those, those are some of the. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there and, I think it's just, it's a space where governance, executive leadership, and strategy all come together in, in one moment. And so I think it's a great opportunity really, to address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. When we realized that we needed to be working with organizations earlier, before they. That moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. What are the characteristics of these high ity organizations? those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment and the impact. And what's going on in those organizations came up with these three tiers, that base level there's organizational stability, the, the vital signs that are okay. It's not at risk, it's not in the intensive care ward. The next level up was what I would call Sustainability. And then, layering on top of that was vitality. And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and board leadership that the board hires the executive, the board, is responsible for, shepherding the mission and shepherding impact.
Carol: Leadership transitions really do impact all aspects of the organization and are an opportunity to take stock of how leadership is being shared – or not- across the organization – between the board and executive director – between the executive director and staff.
I appreciated Andy Robinson’s challenge to organizations and their leaders. His question goes to the heart of thinking about, planning for and preparing for transitions. And normalizing this process, instead of thinking of it as an anomaly.
Andy Robinson: One of the things I ask people is how long will it take to win? And they're like, what? And I say, how long will it take for you to change the world so effectively that the work of your organization is no longer necessary? Like, what's your exit strategy right now? We should acknowledge that many organizations are perpetual organizations. Hospitals, universities, some of these institutions should be around forever. I totally get that. A lot of groups are trying to solve a problem and go out of business. So my first question is how long will it take for you to win? Then I say, are you gonna be here for the victory party? And of course everybody laughs and says, no, I'm not gonna be around that long. And then I say to them, if you are not Actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition.
Carol: If you are not actively grooming the next generation of leadership for your organization right now, by definition, you are failing at your mission by definition. This is a real call to action for leaders – because very few are really putting this front and center as they lead their organization – or their movement. To dig deeper into how different people approach their leaving, Don Tebbe has reflections on the different common styles people take.
Don: The hero's farewell, and he outlined four different characters, four different profiles.
ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything was gonna be just fine. Governors who went on to other big jobs and left the organization behind so forth. Monarchs, they are gonna be carried out feet first. Stewards, what I see most of in the nonprofit world. People that can leave gracefully, but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization. So I encouraged department executives to think of themselves as stewards, and they're gonna hand off the organization to the next steward.
Carol: For those starting to think about their exit from leadership, which of these avatars will you embody? Will you be a monarch, an ambassador, a governor or a steward? And how ready is the organization as a whole for change? How are you cultivating shared and new leadership on your staff and board? Without this, the board – who is charged with finding the new leader can be ill equipped for the responsibility as Elizabeth Woolfe explains.
Elizabeth Woolfe: If the board is still firmly entrenched in what used to be, they're not going to be as effective. And it really, that can be a real recipe for disaster because then you have someone coming in new and fresh as a leader who wants to take the organization to the next level or in a different direction, and the board is stuck. When I do board coaching and board development, it's really to view boards on an ever-expanding continuum where they go from this working board as they commonly are in the very beginning, like sheep following the leader, to something that becomes what's more appropriate for a later or iteration of the organization where they're, they become a governing board and it's a completely different set of skills.
Carol: Andy Robinson echoes Elizabeth’s points.
Andy: You and I have both worked with boards where there's been board members on the board for 20 or 30 years. Term limits is a whole nother thing here that we can be thinking about in terms of a succession plan, is that even if the staff leadership turns over, you still have the same people on the board with the same set of assumptions and the same story that goes back to 1993, about why we should be doing this.
Carol: Don advocates for the staff leader to take the reigns in planning their exit.
Don: You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I go to try to clarify that doesn't mean you suring the board's authority and trying to force in your handpick success or on the one hand, nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship they want with this new executive, paying attention to how that handoff and making sure that the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive.
Carol: Carlyn Madden explains some of the work her search firm does to prepare the groundwork for the needed changes.
Carlyn Madden: On the front end, we are not just reviewing key documents. To get a sense of the lay of the land or does the last audit say and all of those sorts of things. But also we are surveying board members, see staff members for membership association, the actual members of the association, key volunteers, possibly even program participants. We're talking to funders, we're doing a survey, we're doing one on one phone calls. We're doing listening sessions. It's just, it's gonna depend on what the organizations are, how recently they've done similar things. And we're trying to learn what. What was really stellar about the LA person in this position?
What were some of the key achievements? What do you think is on the horizon? What hasn't been paid attention to that often needs too often, staff culture is a big east. I think we're really going through a virtuous time. Rightly so. In my opinion, where staff are much more vocal about what they're going to need from their next leader.
Carol: She also comments on what has often been missing from how boards approach executive searches.
Carlyn: What hasn't been happening, particularly in the equity piece, the racial equity or gender justice, or whatever, these different, different elements that affect individual organization. And this is their time to be able to lift and surface that. And for the board to be able to hear that in an objective way, that's not the The thesis banged on the front door that says, we're demanding change or we are unionizing because our rights are being infringed upon.
Carol: Andy Robinson pointed out the mission critical aspect of grooming the next generation and preparing a leadership pipeline. We talked about some specific actions that leaders can do to start that process.
Andy: one thing you should do is look at your task list and try to hand it off. I don't know, one task a week, two tasks a week. And I don't mean, pardon me, Carol. I don't mean the medical stuff. I mean, substantive stuff. I mean, if you're doing all the data entry and you hand that off to somebody else. Sure. That's lovely, but that's not building their skillset. So that's one thing they could do is actually look at what you do and say, is there stuff that I can delegate reasonably appropriately without burdening other people, but also takes me out of the center
when I'm building an agenda and I'm figuring out who's gonna lead. What section of the agenda. I want multiple people leading different parts of the agenda. Cuz the ability to, to run a meeting, facilitate a conversation is a leadership skill. Don't be a perfectionist. And there's the classic thing you see is that you have a leader who wants it done their way. And often somebody else has a different way of doing it. That is different, but could be just as effective or differently, effective or weaker in some ways, but stronger in ways that your way isn't. I think that's a succession planning strategy too. If you're a leader, how do you take up less space so that other people can occupy that space?
Carol: One thing that I would say to every leader – you can start creating more space for others to lead by one really simple yet challenging act. Do NOT be the first to speak in a discussion. Wait a beat. Wait two beats. Even when it feels awkward to be in silence. Let others step in and share their perspective before you. If you always go first – most likely everyone around you will be sharing in reaction to and in light of your contribution. I observe so many leaders dominating conversations and not realizing the impact they are having. By doing this, they are leaving a lot of good thinking on the table from those around them. If it feels super awkward – tell people you are going to do this – and have them hold you accountable.
If you do try this, I would love to hear some results of your experiments.
As Elizabeth points out, your leadership pipeline doesn’t have to only be inside your organization. You can be looking to cultivate leadership with those in your wider ecosystem.
Elizabeth: If it's that organization that has a leadership pipeline, it could be that but most often in larger organizations, yes, that is more typical, but in smaller organizations, there's not.
Enough people working there for it to really be an appropriate way of organizing succession, but it is always nice. And, I encourage organizations to do this, to have sort of a. A running list of people that they have in their orbit. That could be either someone that they consider in, in a search or someone who would, they, they would consider to be part of a search committee who knows the organization well enough and who's connected enough.
Carol:. Carlyn also talks about how those wider networks and ecosystems are so important for effective searches. As well as tapping into a variety of networks.
Carlyn: Hire by hire and talk about some of the survey data on executive leadership in the nonprofit sector has not changed in the last 20 years, right. The demographic has not actually changed. And so what is required are that the conditions of executive search have to change.
we're very firm in that color transparency for all of our clients. I'm really thinking about building, not actually building out networks, multiracial networks, leveraging affinity groups, having open exchange with clients, recognizing that often leaders of color don't have those sponsors or, when we are reaching out to folks saying, who do you know in this space. That would be a good executive director because there's so many white people in the sector in top leadership roles. Our networks are very homogenous. If a transition committee is hiring an executive director and says only executive directors can apply for it. Well, what we know to be true about the field is that there are fewer executive directors of color than white executive directors.
And so we're already starting to limit the pool.
Carol: Carlyn also talks about the differentiation process of what is essential for the executive director role and what is there because of the current person in the role.
Carlyn: What's his pet project, right? The organization has been shaped around his identity and in many ways it's been really successful. His vision has helped propel this organization to really incredible heights in a very small period of time, short period of time. But there are also things, their pet project. And the board recognizes it to some extent but not necessarily the full extent. So that was the focus of our conversation yesterday, but it was really helpful just to identify, like there are some things that only he can do and only he wants to do. And so the next executive director might even bring their own pet projects and that's okay.
Carol: Interim executive directors is something that organizations going through a transition should consider as an option. There are consultants who do nothing but interim work and can bring their experience to your organization. But our experts were not totally in agreement about interims and their value.
Elizabeth: The transition period in an organization, especially when they're losing a position like a founder, it's crucial to, to build in some space where everyone can experience what that feels like before embarking on the next. I almost always recommend that they consider hiring an interim for that reason. And, and especially with a founder, and a founder that might have been with the organization for a very long time, it's a big change. It's like when you bake cookies and or, and when you make pancakes and, and the first pancake just doesn't turn out well, It's like that. If you hire someone too quickly, that first pancake just might not turn out that well, and that's unfortunate because then the organization is once again plunged into a period of transition, which is not really healthy or something I'd recommend. The statistics about, especially following a founder for new leaders coming in and not being successful is really shocking.
So the interim can really be that bridge very successfully. For all of the reasons that you just outlined, it's like a palate cleanser. It's a good thing to try. The most formative of those relationships, but when you have relationships with funders, when those people have those relationships that are very closely held, there's a lot of insecurity and instability that can affect the organization adversely if it's not handled correctly. And oftentimes that's the best reason to have an interim. Because that person can focus on those relationships. Otherwise it's a board member or maybe a secondary staff person that might not be as comfortable relationship building and relationship cultivating as the leader was. And it could be really debilitating for the organization.
Don: I've been listening to your interview with Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of interim executive. Being the standard approach for an organization now, that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations. For a lot of organizations that just doesn't work, you've got fundraising relationships that you need to hand off, or you've got key government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, you know, having an interim in there and doing that hand off twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work.
Carol: Carlyn and I talked about the danger of a new executive director becoming an accidental interim – especially if they are following a founder or a long term ED.
Carlyn: Is that executive director going to be the person that hands over the keys? Or is that person going to need to use an interim executive director in order to facilitate that transition? And we're dealing with people. So every person is different. Every organization is different because of that person. I can't say there's one right way to do it, but often an interim executive director after the founder is a good idea because this person can help steward and.
Steer the organization's operation and help clean up. it's not like there's a mess necessarily, but, but be able to implement some new systems, be able to identify if there are staff members that need to be promoted. If there are staff members that have outgrown their position they can do some of that quote unquote dirty work before the next executive director comes in. We commonly say there's sort of. Accidental interim that often follows a founder, somebody that is in that role for about 18 months. And you don't want that. You want the next person to follow the founder to be there for a much longer term. Maybe not another 30 years, but five, 10 years be able to take the organization through its next cycle of opportunity.
Carol: The glass cliff, not the, just the glass ceiling, but the glass cliff of being offered, you women, women of color, especially being offered the, the impossible job. Yeah, exactly. And then people wondered why they couldn't.
Carlyn: Where women are called in to clean out a. And then have an impossible job out of them. And then our, their performance is managed in a way that is not commensurate with the, with the opportunity ahead, or the challenge ahead.
Carol: As Don points out it is never too early to start thinking about transition and succession. It is not just a process to follow or a set of steps. In William Bridges work on transition, he describes three phases that people go through - the ending, the neutral zone and the new beginning. In our action oriented culture, we often think we can jump directly from the ending to the new beginning. The liminal - in between spaces of the neutral zone can catch us off guard. It is messy and confusing. And all through the transition, you can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Don describes how this impacts leaders.
Don: the executive really should initiate the succession. Process and rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. You probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people four, three to four to five years ahead of their departure. A lot of times, executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process to me, there's no ambiguity. You got three jobs. Job number one: lead the organization through the transition, of course, but understand that that role is going to evolve as your departure date draws closer. Number two is to prepare yourself for that next chapter of life. Like if you're gonna retire, have something magnetic that's drawing you forward rather than a job that you're leaving. And job number three is to prepare the organization for the succession and transition process.
Carol: Don talks about how many leaders are caught by surprise by the emotional element of the transition – and I would add - everyone in the organization is going through their own emotional roller coaster too. Don tells a story that illustrates just this point.
Don: He was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and.
Said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never gonna leave this organization. I'm gonna go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but you know what I mean? It really upset the apple cart. And I think it also makes people feel whipsawed. It can be a real stew for the staff and ripe for people, some of your best people, to look elsewhere because they're questioning their career. The future with the organization and, and there's always questions anyway will we like the new executive? Can we trust the board to pick the right person for a job?
Carol: I appreciate Don’s comment about the leader preparing themselves for the next step. In our conversation, Andy described his own process of succession and transition into retirement.
Andy: I feel like if I step back, there's more room for others to step up and jobs than I am not accepting. And I am referring to other people or jobs. I don't get anymore, cuz it's okay. I have enough, I've had enough work. I don't need to do it much longer, but I'm also supporting and training and helping other people who wanna enter this space. And that feels good to me. So this is my personal succession plan and I can't say I wrote it down, but it's something I've thought about for years and I've been implementing it step by step. And the latest step is for me to work less and be more assertive about pushing jobs out to other people, especially folks who are new to consulting. I'm sending a lot more work to BIPOC consultants. Black indigenous people of color as a way of supporting social justice and equity.
Carol: Carlyn and I explored what emerging leaders can do to get ready for an executive director role and what the board needs to do to set the new leader up for success.
Carlyn: if you're an aspiring ED, this is your time to shine. But if you're a board know that, that it's gonna be very additive to get the right person. So you might walk away with the perfect person, but you might be offering it to a couple different people. We've had a couple scenarios just in the last few months where someone's accepted a job offer, been in this situation where they're negotiating a parallel job offer. You have to be willing to make some, some adjustments to your timeline, to the amount of money that you have on the table, all sorts of things. If somebody is looking to ascend into an executive director role, the board is paying very close attention to how much fundraising experience they have, or what is their external facing. What are the technology needs that they're going to have? What are the key people that they need to meet in the first week? How are they let's go ahead and set up meetings with the board members so that that's all done for them. They like to walk in, they open their calendar and they're like, great. I will meet Jim for lunch next Tuesday. And Jill and Joanie are going to be a happy hour,
We also do 30, 60, 90 day check-ins with both the incoming executive director, and the board chair.
Carol: The topic of transitions seemed super relevant as we slowly emerge from the pandemic. As the going impacts of the Great resignation, great reshuffle keep reverberating through the economy. And the nonprofit sector as a subset of that – feeling all those transitions too. We are also I think – finally in the much anticipated generational transition as boomers retire and new leaders step into the limelight.
If these clips intrigued you and you want to go back and listen to the full episodes from each of the people featured in today’s best of – Elizabeth Woolfe’s is episode 12, Carlyn Madden is 27, Andy Robinson is 21 and Don Tebbe is 32.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find the full transcript, as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out. And until next time, thank you for everything that you do to contribute and make an impact.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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