Leadership Transition? Start from Where You AreMar 17, 2021
-By Jane Halford
Tag—you’re it! That’s how it feels as a board member when you hear that the organization’s CEO is leaving their role. Even if you anticipated the news, you still don’t want to hear it.
When I was the chair of a board and received this news, I admit, my first thought was, “not in my term!” I knew this was more work than I had time for and that getting the change in leaders wrong would hurt the organization and the people we served.
So, what did I do?
"I took a blank piece of paper and wrote down what we needed to do to get from this moment to having our new leader fully functioning in the role."
If you don’t have time to start the list yourself, here’s my best tips on how to get ahead:
Pause – Catch your breath. You always put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. Together, you will get through. Bringing your individual experience to your role will set an empowered tone for the full board.
First – The board leads the search, selection, and transition processes for its leader. It’s your job. Decide which board committees or individuals are best for each major task. If you have a skills matrix, look for clues there. If you don’t have that, phone each board member and ask each of them about their experience with human resources, organizational change, and their interest and availability. You will have two focuses: finding your next leader (the search and selection process), and ensuring that the new leader is successful in their first year (the leadership transition). I suggest board members (other than the chair) divide up the work amongst themselves so that both focuses can be accomplished simultaneously.
Second – Preparing for transition starts the day you know your current leader is leaving. Transition success is about providing the new leader with critical information and working together to clarify top priorities for their first ninety days. Even though you don’t know the name or biography of your next leader, there will be a vast amount of knowledge to share with them. One topic to prepare is the current state of the organization (e.g., financial/budget, strategy, key initiatives, stakeholder relations). If your current leader is still available, they can help gather much of that information. If they have already left, other staff members (hint: remember the executive assistant!), can work with the board. Start by Taking STOCK of the knowledge in the organizations. The board, outgoing leader, and other team members can help. This is a time to come together and build the success roadmap for your leader.
Third – Did you know that 40% of new leaders fail in the first 18 months in the role (Fortune, 2012)? If that was the rate in pre-pandemic times, what will it be this year if your board isn’t proactive? The top reason for an unsuccessful new leader is a lack of clear expectations between them and the board. As the board is searching for its next leader, start clarifying the priorities for the first 30, 60, and 90 days of your new leader’s tenure. If your new leader could only accomplish three things that made the most positive impact to the organization, what would those be? CEOs who started their role during the pandemic have shared that they had one priority: to keep the organization running. That meant maintaining physical safety, core operations, and cash management. They had to set aside other key functions such as building relationships in the industry or specific projects included in the 2020 strategic or operating plans. With this in mind, the new leader will need to work together with the board to clarify what matters most. Then, when other challenges and opportunities come up, re-evaluate the priorities and determine the way forward. It’s okay to change priorities, as long as you work together and commit to the new plan. Be proactive with each other. A “no surprises'' approach to the first year will maximize your connection with the new leader and accelerate their learning process.
No Time? After all of this, you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for all of this extra work!” Being focused and efficient with the time you have available is all you can do. Even investing fifteen minutes a week in developing an emergency plan for your CEO will benefit the organization. If you’re interested in developing this further, you can find the Board’s Role in Leadership Transition online course will provide more guidance. In it there are short videos and worksheets made for busy board members.
Even by reading this article, you are further ahead on finding and welcoming your organization’s next leader! You know how to start and how to engage others. In a future blog, I will share practical steps to manage emergency situations including choosing an interim leader.