Getting Ready for CEO Transition

Transitioning from a sustaining  to new CEO poses significant challenges for all parts of the organization. Indeed there are many issues to consider beyond writing a press release and planning an event honoring the outgoing leader. How should the organization prepare? Will there be a dip in revenue? What should the organization look for in a new leader?

Passion for the mission often grows as a CEO leads a nonprofit organization.  Through long term involvement in the day to day operations of the organization, the CEO remembers many interactions with clients; successes; moments she wished she could have back; and organization changing opportunities. Transition is not about moving on. It is about building a long term sustainable organization through creating strong leaders internally. As the organization prepares for transition, leaders identify skills and capacities the next CEO will need to lead the organization through the opportunities that await.

Creating the opening to prepare for transition is critical. Crisis and urgency usually do not partner with planning and strategy. Instead the sustaining CEO should take the opportunity to prepare the organization and themselves for transition. Sometimes the leader will identity a specific date that transition will occur. This is known as departure defined leadership. If the transition is farther than two or three years, the focus is on developing internal leaders rather than a specific leadership transition.

Often, sustaining CEO’s remind me of Superwomen always with the solution to every challenge in their back pocket. It is not unusual for a governing board to provide advice to the sustaining CEO rather than directly aiding in plan development. A new leader often need a more involved board. In this interim period, it is critical for the departing leader to recruit, empower, and develop new board leaders as well as be open to new methods and practice.

Empowering board and staff to step up will prepare them for the next stage, but these behaviors do not come overnight. The transitioning CEO should focus on identifying opportunities to inspire, engage, and coach staff and board. This may not be easy; board and senior staff may hesitate to fully explore all issues with a departing leader. In these cases an outside facilitator should be considered.

The organization cannot identify a new leader until it recognizes where it is and more importantly where it is going. Board members should develop a list of leadership capacities through exploring community need, organization mission, market, and opportunities on the horizon.  Through these activities, the skills and background the new leader will need emerges.

Organizations preparing for transitioning should consider other upcoming challenges. A leadership transition can be particularly challenging if it is from the founder or if the new CEO will be the organization’s first paid staff. Beyond these special circumstances, although CEO’s wear many hats and are responsible for diverse duties, often due to layoffs the current CEO position structure may not be realistic. This may be particularly true during the initial transition period. In addition, transitions can lead to a dip in revenue. We will explore all of these issues and challenges in upcoming blog posts.


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