Exiting Gracefully with Don Tebbe
In episode 32 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Don Tebbe discussed include:
Guest Information: Don Tebbe is an organizational planning consultant and one of America’s most experienced advisors on nonprofit CEO transition and leadership succession. He experienced, first-hand, the challenges of sustaining an organization and navigating leadership succession as a former nonprofit executive director and five-time interim CEO. Since 1993, he’s helped hundreds of nonprofit leaders plan for and manage turnover in their chief executive positions. Don was one of the national thought leaders involved in an Annie E. Casey Foundation-sponsored project to develop better practices for nonprofit leadership succession. Many of the concepts and practices used by succession practitioners today originated with the Casey project. He is the author of Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire & Support a Nonprofit CEO and The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Next Chapter.
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Carol Hamilton: Welcome Don. Welcome to the podcast.
Don Tebbe: Thanks Carol. I'm excited to be here. Have this chat with you and.
Carol: Absolutely. And I always like to start out and I know you've had a very long career. So this made this, this, the answer to this question may have changed over time, but what really drew you to the work that you do? What motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Don: I see you sent me that question in advance and I had really pondered that because I think it's been more of a feeling than an explicit calling. In fact, I did some research for one of my books on callings and I am 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 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. And I couldn't think of any, I tried business, I tried government. But I couldn't think of any place else where you could have a much more meaningful life than the nonprofit world.
Carol: Yeah. I've definitely found that as well. I mean, it's meaningful in the work that you're doing, but I also find it attracts other good people. And so I enjoy it. I often really enjoy my colleagues and enjoy their thoughtfulness and their sense of calm.
Don: Yeah, I think for me, the perfect place was to move in. In the consulting arena. I had been an executive director and deputy director for about 10 years before I moved into consulting in 1993. And I just really, I just fell in love with it. the opportunity to work with great people to work with them at a very meaningful moment when they're particularly, if they're. Maybe not necessarily struggling, but questioning, like when we're doing planning work. And it also gave me a lot of flexibility to really double down on, on the missions that I really care about without having the, the daily grind of, of being an executive, like developmental disabilities, like food security, like housing like, child services.
Carol: Yeah. Getting to contribute to all of those different things rather than having to pick one, one major passion. Yeah. So you, as you said, you've had a long career in the sector ranging over a number of different areas and, including executive search and really pioneering, how many transition specialists approach executive search today? I think actually. You're one of the people who's been quoted multiple times on this podcast over the past year. So kudos for that. And one thing that I especially appreciated about how you address this issue is that you address it from both sides, from the point of view of the board and the organization, but then also the point of view of a long term executive director or the founder. In your book the nonprofit CEO succession roadmap. I'm your guide for the journey to life's next chapter? Why was it important for you to address the exiting executive director directly?
Don: Well, it can't really came out of work that Tom Adamson I did when we were partners in a firm called transition guides. Tom and I met when he was leading a project for the Annie Casey foundation that was looking at the question of how we can have better transitions in the nonprofit world. Invited a small group of practitioners when myself included at the time I was the interim executive director of the interim ministry network. So Tom and I put together this program a two day retreat called next steps. Particularly targeting founders and long term executive directors. Cause it was, yourself, those are some of them. Can be some of the most problematic transitions out there. And, I think it's just, it's, it's, it's, 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 to really address all three of those, those prongs also the organizational capacity. So we started off with, we were focused on executive transitions in, came up with the executive transition management model, all that, and what we realized that we needed to be working with organizations. Earlier, before they hit that moment of transition. So that led us into the succession planning work. And then in early two thousands, I was looking at the, I do these deep dives every few years. And the deep dive I was doing then was around really organizational vitality. I did 140 CEO transitions in my career and managed 104 of them. And some organizations come to you in all sorts of conditions. There's the high performing organizations. There's the low performing organizations. There's the organism. They are firing their executive director. I really wanted to take a look at and see what characters, what are the characteristics of these high valleys? Tell the organization, those organizations where you walk in the front door and you can just feel it. You can feel the energy, the excitement, the commitment, the impact I am w what's what was going on in those organizations that I came away from. I did literature review and some case study research and 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. What is vitality? And so you really have to, I think you have to address both the executive and, and work leadership on that board higher. So the executive, the board, is responsible for shepherding the mission and shepherding him. And obviously the executive is their key partner in driving that impact. So I think it's terribly important to address both. But we found though with these retreats we had about, I think we had about 600 alumni when I left transition guides. We would do it a couple times a year, small groups, about 25 to 30 executives. It may, when I did interviews with. So folks that are with our alumni, what I found was that just really, They, they, they were our point of entry into the organization and, and, the opportunity to then work, with a board. So I think also my belief is that the executive really should initiate the succession process. And rather than the board initiating it on their behalf. So I think, it's, it's, it's. It's just like in a situation with a nonprofit; their key partners need to be working with both of them.
Carol: What would you say is important for exiting executive directors to realize about the transition?
Don: Well, probably the thing that I heard the most and was most surprising is to a person for these interviews, they. They were shocked and surprised by how emotional the process was for them. That was something that really caught them off guard. So we really tried to make sure that they understood that in, in, in this retreat process. So I think that's, I think that's one thing that's a surprising thing, but I think in terms of the points that I would make with executives is you probably can't start too early. We were focusing on primarily trying to get to people for three to four to five years ahead of their Parker, I'm thinking of one particular instance this executive was a household name and, she was not just the, the leader of this nonprofit. She was a leader of a whole movement and she was, that's, that's a pretty hard person to replace. So we actually, I started talking with her 10 years before she left and I don't, I don't think that was the cause, That there needed to be some capacity building around the movement and not just inside her for her organization. So, and that's an extreme case, but usually I'd say three to four years, it's not too early. because particularly if it's founder or long-term executive, cause there may need to be some capacity building needs to take place in the organization. They baby, They grew into the role as the organization grew up around them. Right. And so there may be, they may be covering for somebody, they are, there may be a hole in their operation or there may be somebody that they'd been making do with in, in the organization. Also, there may be a board that's overly dependent on them and really needs to do some board building work to make sure that there's a, I would call. The board's gone through a reformation process and it's not a friend's a founder board any longer, it's a fully functioning, or that has a, it has a sense of itself independent of the founder. And so I think that you just can't start too early. And I think the third point that I would make is that a lot of times executives are confused about their role in, in the transition process and the succession process. It's 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 going to 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: And you mentioned that often folks were caught off guard with how emotional the whole process was. What were some of the common things that folks experienced as they, as they move through? And what were some of the unhelpful behaviors that came out of that, that, that roller coaster, that emotional roller coaster.
Don: Yeah. I think it'd be a lot of it distributed by the executives personality. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld was at Yale university and wrote a book a few years back about the hero's farewell and he outlined four different characters for different profiles. There were the ambassadors, people that could leave the organization gracefully, or even have a continuing role with the organization. And, everything's going to be just fine. Governance. Who went on to other, big, big jobs and left the organization behind, so forth. And Oh, I forgot the other two right off the top of my head here, but the Monarch and the steward, right? Oh, that's right there. Exactly. Yeah. Well, steward was my year's term monarch, that you're going to be carried out feet first or X showing the door kicking and screaming. But my belief is that there's a fifth category out there. Another category out there is called stewards. And that's what I see most. In, in the nonprofit world, people that can, leave gracefully and but not necessarily have a continuing role with the organization science and courage to pardon executives, to think of themselves as stewards. And they're going to hand off the organization to the next sewer. So did that answer it quickly?
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what would you say you, you talked about the three tasks that are inherent in the job of leading an organization through the transition. What can executives do to help make the transition go more smoothly?
Don: Oh, gosh encouraging the board chair to pick good leadership for the succession process. And as I said, starting the succession process earlier, and I also, I've been listening to your interview. Liz Wolf and I take a little bit different tack about the idea of, of interim executives being the standard approach for an organization. Now that was the, that is the experience in, in many religious denominations, right? Place what's called a settled pastor until there's been an interim there for at least a year, so that there is that breathing room, that separation, but the challenge, and I brought that into discussions with the KC project and what we found. By comparing notes with compass points in our own practice, for a lot of organizations that just don't work for you, you've got fundraising relationships that you need handoff, or you've got P government contract relationships that you need to hand off and, have you. Having an interim in there and doing that handoff twice, just, just, just doesn't seem to work. And so that's one reason why we took a step back and said, let's start earlier, work intensively and encourage the executives to get some coaching in the process so that they're, they're dealing with their own stuff. About how the transition is going, because the job does evolve and, or, people can feel a sense of loss when decisions are deferred to the new executive and so forth.
Carol: Yeah. And one of them is that I'm not listening to the train. And so I totally lost my train of thought, wanted to follow up on, oh, I remember what it is now. One of the points that you made, which I thought was really key, was the scent, the recommendation to pick a date and stick with it, not to be going back and forth. Well, I thought that was a good idea, but really we've got one more project to do, one more project to do and kicking the can down the road. What, how, what impact have you seen that have on the rest of the organization? When, when. That executive isn't it from, and their plans and how they move forward?
Don: Yeah. One person comes to mind very clearly. I was coaching him on his departure and we were having coffee. About a month after our initial meeting, he then let out to me that he was rethinking his departure date and his long time, well seasoned deputy just up and quit and said, look, I'm done with this, you're, you're never going to leave this organization. I'm going to go do something else. I think I gave some notice, but what do I mean? It really upset the applecart. And I think I'd also feel whipsawed. Cause for the staff a departure particularly of a founder or long-term executives, this may be the only boss they've ever known. Right. and particularly to their long term staff members and it's unnerving for the staff. And so you don't want your best people to be, cause people. It's an unknown and nerving time men, particularly if you couple that with, The executive or the board being guarded about information. It can be a real stew for the staff and right, for people, you're some of your best people to look elsewhere because they're questioning them. The future with the organization again, and there's always questions anyway. we'll, we like the new executive, can we trust the board to pick the right person for the job? Are they going to bring in some, somebody that's going to bring in their own team and they want a gun we're going to clean house when we don't necessarily need to clean houses as a high-performing organization, all those things.
Carol: What are other mistakes that you've seen executive directors make as they're exiting?
Don: There's a touchy topic there. One of the points I try to make is you need to take responsibility. You need to take responsibility for your departure and your exit plan. And then I will try to clarify that that doesn't mean you surf the board's authority and try to force in your hand pick success or are on the one hand nor does it mean dumping everything in the board's lap. And saying, Hey, it's their, it's their problem. It's their job. I'm running the organization. It's finding that, that, that place where you can really be a good steward of this entire process without, without rush riding rough shots over the board and not dumping it all in their laps, which volunteer boards are. Oftentimes really pretty clueless about what's really needed in that, in that way.
Carol: Yeah, so helping them through. And that's where I think, bringing in external help because, if the person's a founder, it's unlikely that they've managed a transition or their own exit before in, in that case. And so may not know all the things that that could be helpful to, to pay attention to as they're going through that process.
Don: Yeah. I think the other thing is that I am paying a lot of tension, a lot of attention to the preparation for the hand. And that can be a great comfort to you, to your leadership team, to your staff. If they're helping to prepare the way for the new executive. In fact, that really is one of your roles as a departing executive is to prepare the way for your successor. And so getting staff engaged in that, whether it's paying the CEO's office. So rewinding here a little bit is, I think it's really important that executives pay attention to the, the preparation to receive and work effect for causation work effectively with the new executive and paying attention to the handoff. So preparation for the new executive. I think there's a, I think. Engaging the board in some con getting the board to engage in conversations about what governance relationship do they want with us new executive, you spent a long time, writing this profile, imagining what this new person going to be like, getting clear about, the priorities for the first 12 to 18 months of their tenure. Well, what relationship? Should you have, within an executive, particularly if you've got a founder or long-term executive leading staff preparation, getting the staff involved in preparing briefing materials for the new executive that it becomes part of that, the handoff, getting some bios together about what the team looks like that sort of. And then expecting that there might be a little bit of overlap between you in, in your successor and that's, that can be fair. Yeah. in small organizations, it may be a couple hours, a couple of days in a large organization. Like one of our clients was an international health charity that had, has. Offices are all around the world. So the current CEO stayed on and the new CEO came in and worked out a month, I think, going on listening tours, visiting all the facilities around the world as the CEO of. And so paying attention to how that, that handoff and making sure that the, the critical relationships get handed off that there's briefing materials for the new executive, that there's an opportunity to really get it's no the organization that they're taking over and and then, then, riding off handoff and ride off.
Carol: I love it. So at the end of each episode, I like to play a game where I ask one random icebreaker question. And so what's something that you believed earlier in your career that you think about differently now?
Don: Oh my gosh. Well, I think a hard lesson I learned as a, as an executive director was not to expect the board to spontaneously fundraise. Yeah. Do you mind if I go back to a point about that? Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Okay. Well, so one of the things back in the mid nineties I had a great opportunity working with organizations in Silicon valley based here, but worked out there almost a quarter of the time and. So I wrote a book for this and worked for the center for excellence and nonprofits in San Jose. It was started by Dean Martin. When he retired as a CEO of COO of Hewlett Packard, he was the board chair and he was on the Packard foundation board and a really great guy, a great relationship, and worked with him and bopped on Bob carton on the evolution of this organization. Seven years. So one of the things I did with them was do this report, looking at governance practices in highly effective nonprofits. It's really had a very formative relationship for me, our impact on me because I was fresh off a fairly new consultant at that time, fresh off the heels of, of Relationship with a board. And one of the things that really saw was that it really opened my eyes to that whole board executive relationship. And by the way, I loved Mary Highland's interview with you on that, on that point, Mary and I are old friends and what I came away with and it's really had a forum. Fo helped really from my approach to executive transitions and the importance of following through and having that onboarding process and having an intentional relationship building process with the board. What I saw in these organizations is what I came to call the board executive social contract, you in every work situation, we've got our literal contract. Maybe it's as simple as a job description, or maybe it is a formal written contract, but then we have, how do we live? And that's the social contract. And when I saw his organization's spine large, they were clear about four things. Number one, they were clear about the priorities that they were pursuing together as a board and an executive team. That might be what's in their strategic plan. It might be some developmental work with the organization. It might be exploring new ventures or something like that, but they were clear about their priorities that they were going to work on together. They were clear about their roles and responsibilities. And I know you've got an organizational development background, so this is going to make lots of sense. I'm sure. you're you got that separation of executive roles or board roles and responsibilities. How do you tie that together? Well, you tie that together with some sort of accountability mechanism, that thing, that relationship looks different in every organization, but. Every one of those seem to have those four characteristics to it. So that really made an impact on me. And so I brought that into the executive transition work to make sure that there's an intentional way of the board, an executive building that relationship and that there's a process, a guided process that they could actually go through.
Carol: Yeah. I had the chance to work with one organization that was going through that executive transition and worked with the group before, it wasn't part of the search process, but then came back afterwards to help the board and the new executive director have that exact conversation about what's important to us in terms of how we work together. How are we gonna, what are the ways that we're going to show up? What are the behaviors that we're going to demonstrate that are going to support? Working together in a collaborative, positive way. So, I had a chance to work with them on their strategic planning. And so then I was able to remind you, and these are the things you said you were going to do when you worked together. And none of them were, that they're all good things. People would come up with in terms of being respectful and communicating and collaborating, but I think being explicit about it and then coming back to it and reminding yourself and then thinking, so how are we doing on that? Are there other places where we could adjust and, and, and tweak it to make it better, can be really helpful.
Don: Yeah. And, and having been clear that that, that, that. The connecting mechanism, that evaluation mechanism, has an evolution to it, and should be multi-stage at least in the first year, because, what's the big question on the board? I often hire the right person. Right. And so you want it to, you want to have an intentional non-intrusive way of a non-intrusive way of, of. Yeah, getting that information, getting, getting that. Sure. And so, it might be the first 30 days, having a ha how's it going at conversation? Maybe the first quarter, that's a little bit more of a ha ha how are you, how are you feeling about, your. you're taking charge because there is a taking charge process that John Kabarro at Harvard documented a number of years ago. And so it's, rather than an executive, parachuting in and stepping into the role, it's oftentimes a ramping up process. And so understanding that and just being realistic about that evaluation process. So quarterly. First quarter. Half of the year and then, maybe the annual review after that, but thinking of it as an assurance mechanism and in being realistic about it, because the executives aren't there. They're coming into an organization, they may be confronting problems. There's oftentimes as, legacy issues that don't come up and don't get the cat's not out of the bag until the new executive is there. And so making sure that they're feeling well supported on that. And everybody's being realistic about this.
Carol: Yeah. And you've got all those lines of communication open, which is really key. And yeah, so we did that once, but it doesn't mean that it's done, right. It's not something you just checked off the list. It's something you'd come back to and what needs to be adjusted and how are, where, where are we now? And what else, what, what do we need to think of? So what, what, what are you excited about? What's coming up next for you. What's emerging and the work that you're doing now.
Don: Oh, wow. Just a bunch of things. I'm retooling a course that Susan Shaffer and I developed called going solar going big. It's of course for consultants. And so I'm doing some editing of that after it's been out there for a couple of years online. We do it in person. Yeah. Yeah, some are retooling that this sounds very nerdy, but I'm really excited about a series of books, discussions that I've been facilitating with a group of consultants, mostly alumni from our workshop. Last year we worked on productivity and the sugar we're going to work on communications and insights. And so doing that and just and really, really enjoying, my practice now is primarily focused on succession planning and organizational planning, and I'm developing a process that I call impact crafting, and I am working. I've worked with about five organizations now with that pilot, it can bring in a lot of the ideas from my executor transition work, I've looked at air free organizations, strategic plan and ask them how they, developed it and really discovered that a lot of organizations, th they, They think the board should do it. They think the staff shouldn't do it. sort of trying to bring that into sharp focus and also discovered in the transition work, a lot of organizations have broken business models and the board doesn't understand how the work really gets done, in the organization. So one of the pieces that I bring to an organization is really to clarify their impact statement beyond their vision, bring it down to a little bit more operational level, and then work with them to actually make. Yeah. Using a variation of the business model canvas to actually map how the work gets done, how they turn vision over here into impact over here. And so that's been really satisfying work and I think it brings a much more grounded feel to the. The planning process.
Carol: Well, we'll probably have to have you back on, to dig into that a little bit more because you love to use all the words that I like to use. So I want to get one, I like to open the door and see what's behind it, but thank you so much for coming on. It's been great talking to you.
Don: Thanks Carol. Great talking with you. Good luck on the podcast, loving the episodes thus far.
Carol: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
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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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