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Smooth transitions: Board Tips for Executive Director Succession Planning

Updated: Apr 3

Getting a new Executive Director into place is not just about having your board of directors write a succession plan in case the current ED gets hit by a bus. It's much more than that. 

Your board of directors plays a crucial role in leadership transitions!! 

Unfortunately boards often get leadership transitions wrong, especially in smaller charities. Remember, charities are NOT big corporations. A "rip off the bandaid" approach to leadership transitions could cause serious harm to an organization as well as the individuals involved. 

Caring for the people involved is critical and boards need to lead by example!

Executive Director transitions can make or break the future of an organization. It is imperative to keep the human and emotional side front of mind. Transitions can be especially challenging after long standing Executive Directors who might have a lot of personal connection to the organization. 

So how can boards support smooth Executive Direction transitions?

Create the space to have brave and trusting conversations around succession. Having the ED and Board Chair document a list of needs and risks of key stakeholders is a great place to start. This can point to organizational gaps and where you might need to do some work, or seek outside support. Some key players in succession include the outgoing Executive Director, board members, staff, the incoming Executive Director and the community you serve.

Trust is the glue

I've seen too many transitions handled with a lack of respect for the people involved and this almost always has negative consequences for the long term health of the organization and those involved in the process. 

Broken trust can make a long time leadership transition spiral into a disaster, sometimes leading to organizations closing their doors. The board plays a critical role in building, maintaining and leading with trust throughout an executive director transition. Feelings of those involved matter.

Here are some wise board practices I wish I saw more often in ED transitions:

1) Don't panic!

It's vital that board members stay calm throughout the succession process and any time it is brought up for discussion (especially when the Executive Director present!!). Just because an Executive Director brings up one day leaving their job does not mean they are leaving tomorrow, and you boards should not start making plans behind the EDs back. Panic can cloud judgment and lead to inappropriate decisions, which are often harmful to everyone involved. Panic can break trust very quickly.

2) It's NEVER too early to start talking about succession

Discussing a leadership transition should happen YEARS before a transition actually happens (yes, years). Normalizing discussions around succession across your organization with the right people is far more effective than an emergency or unplanned transition that no one has talked about. Even if your departure date is unknown, don't use this uncertainty as an excuse to delay planning. A well-thought-out transition considers the impact on all key stakeholders.

3) Reflect and discuss your ideal transition

Think deeply about your ideal ED transition. Do you envision a 1, 2 or 3-year timeline? Or perhaps you're thinking of leaving after a big accomplishment like seeing through your most recent strategic plan to the end? Understanding the ED's needs and preferences is crucial in shaping the succession plan as well as the needs of your organization. How can you create a transition that feels good for those who matter most in your team and community? It's always best if the ED themself is able to realize that they are no longer what the organization needs (for this I've found succession coaching can be helpful).

4) The Executive Director and Board Chair partnership

Work closely with your board chair to develop a transition and succession plan that provides support and intel for all key stakeholders. This collaborative conversation should begin well before bringing the entire board into the discussion. The Executive Director and Board Chair partnership is foundational in navigating the succession process effectively. It's the Board Chair's responsibility to build and maintain a trusting and honest relationship with the ED that involves respect and honesty. 

5) Transparency is key

Maintain transparency before, during and after a succession process. Avoid secret meetings or discussions that exclude the Executive Director. Trust is a cornerstone of effective succession and transition planning. Give regular updates to your team and community even if there are no updates especially once the process is underway to ease anxiety and minimize rumours. In camera meetings have their place in board meetings to discuss the occasional confidential detail however it's almost always better if difficult conversations can be had directly with the ED, honestly and transparently.

6) Succession should NEVER be taboo 

It's going to happen, so let's talk about it! Successful leadership transitions involve getting boards used to ongoing conversations about succession. Regular communication between the Executive Director and Board Chair is essential, even if there isn't much to talk about. This revisited conversation leads to better alignment and readiness to act when the time comes. Not talking about succession can create unnecessary fear, and make EDs feel like they can never leave an organization.

7) Share knowledge, key relationships and power.

Think about the organization as a whole, living organism. Remember that succession planning isn't just about the Executive Director. Consider the needs of staff, community, volunteers, funders, donors, partners, and all stakeholders. A comprehensive approach to building organizational stability creates a smoother transition and better overall organizational health. Distributing the weight of an organization across as many people as possible is one of the best ways to make succession more successful, not just one leader. 

8) Think beyond the ED! Plan board succession to achieve longevity

Don't forget to plan for the succession of key board roles!! Ensure that a competent and effective chair and vice-chair are always in line. Ensure the board has a robust recruitment process and pipeline. 

Just one ineffective board member can derail even the best-laid succession plans and kill an organization. A diverse, caring, and well-equipped board with a variety of expertise, networks, and skills is vital. Have a process for removing problem board members and communicate it clearly. Bad board behaviour should never ever be tolerated and dealt with swiftly. Board succession and recruitment is often a missed step and can be the difference between an effective board and a nightmare board. 

9) Be honest about capacity

Board members hold a lot of responsibility when it comes to succession of their own roles and the Executive Director. If board members don't give this process the time and energy it NEEDS then the organization will likely suffer. It's vital that people are honest about their capacity when a board shifts into the process of trying to find a new Executive Director. 

Board members need to be available when times get tough. In the ideal scenario you have a Board Chair who sticks around before, during and at least 1 year after ED succession is complete. This builds continuity and a smooth hand off to the next leader and next board chair. If you don't have the capacity or expertise to hire a new Executive Director consider a recruiter. Just be careful because recruiters aren't always a good fit!

Succession planning is not just a task to be checked off a list.

By starting early, collaborating closely with your Board Chair, maintaining transparency, and considering all stakeholders, you can ensure a smoother transition for your organization. 

Remember, the goal of succession planning is not just to replace a leader but to sustain and enhance the organization's mission and impact for the future!

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