Preparing Your Nonprofit for a Successful Executive Transition

Preparing Your Nonprofit for a Successful Executive Transition

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Executive leadership transition…words that can strike fear in even the strongest of hearts. Senior leaders significantly influence the course of an organization, and as such their transitions carry significant weight. To most of us, such events are stressful and daunting affairs, full of challenging questions, additional burdens, and emotions. However, with careful planning and collaborative efforts, the process can be a smooth, positive, and exciting step. And it is supposed to be exciting! Incoming nonprofit chief executives bring new beginnings and new chapters to organizations, creating opportunities for positive changes and a reinvigorated sense of purpose. As you embark upon this journey, we here at Scion have some recommendations to keep in mind on how to best support your nonprofit organization through an executive transition and the incoming leader as they transition into this new role.

The stakes for leadership transitions are high. If the executive transition is successful and the leader is well supported, evidence suggests that their direct reports will perform significantly higher and exhibit greater retention rates. Although leadership transitions are relatively frequent, few organizations feel prepared for them. New leaders often get little to no help and are instead asked to self-manage their own transition and navigate the new role. In order to avoid these pitfalls, consider the ideas below.

Define the Role

Before looking at candidates, it is crucial to clearly define the new leader’s role. Look closely and honestly at expectations for this leadership role. Ask questions concerning what contributions are needed from the leader to support organizational success and how this new leader would best align with the organization’s mission and values. Are you looking for someone similar to whom they are replacing, or will it look different to better serve the organization as it is today? Spend the time to discuss and unpack what are the truly essential attributes the role requires for the success of the organization and the executive role. 

Set the Stage

Position your incoming leader to achieve success through your proactive planning. The outgoing leader should focus their efforts on tying up loose ends and organizing information to pass on to the incoming leader. Letting go isn’t always easy for leaders who are deeply committed to their work, and it is important to support them as they step aside as the organization moves forward. Additionally, there is a tendency for donor and stakeholder relationships to be woven tightly to executive leadership, and during a transition of leadership, it is important to reconnect those associations to the organization. This effort includes supporting your incoming leader’s success by creating the foundation for their new connections to existing donors and stakeholders, paving the way for future achievements together through a galvanized foundation of trust and engagement. During this time the Board should prioritize supporting the executive transition and ensuring that the new leader has the resources they will need.

Transition Plans

The importance of fully developing a comprehensive transition plan cannot be overstated enough. This plan should include a timeline of key events and deadlines, the previously discussed definition of the role, and a list of specific resources that will be needed throughout the transition process. This should be a working document to be reviewed and updated regularly. This plan not only helps the organization stay focused on its mission during this time but also helps the board in its assessments of candidates. The vast majority of organizations do not have such a plan in place, and everyone wishes they had one when the time comes.

Candidates & Search Firms

Successful executive transitions take significant planning and deliberate execution. All of which takes effort and time – and time is a commodity many organizations do not have to spare. As such, it is typically recommended to hire an executive leadership search firm to help in the hunt for a new leader. While the selection process and the heaviest decisions will still be up to the search committee and Board Chair, this way the burden is lessened, and current employees and executive-level staff can maintain the bandwidth needed to continue their organization’s mission in the midst of everything. 

When contemplating new candidates, think about who an ideal leader for the organization would be. In conjunction with your Board of Directors and executive search partner organization discuss both general attributes to look for as well as “must-haves”. As much as possible through these discussions, focus on the organization’s mission and values rather than the individual personalities of those involved in the discussions. Executive search firm partners are able to champion further learning conversations to ensure that all perspectives are considered and that the Board remains aligned throughout the process. 

Although it will be tempting to seek only perfection and unanimity, remember that your candidates are people too, and as such will have imperfections. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is not the right fit for your nonprofit organization. Keep an open mind about where the candidates come from and don’t be afraid to dig deep to learn who will be the best fit, be they internal or external candidates. 

Support for the Selected Leader

Once a candidate has been selected, it is of the utmost importance to provide training and support to the new leader, including orientation sessions, introductions to key stakeholders, and access to all relevant resources. As discussed before, this support should include efforts by the Board and outgoing executive.

It is only in the rarest of circumstances that leadership transitions happen successfully by accident. Successful transitions take time, planning, and focused efforts. With a well-developed concept of an ideal candidate, comprehensive transition plans, and an executive search firm who will not only identify the talent you seek – but will expertly manage the search process, this daunting process will turn into a smooth and steady journey.

If you are looking for a search firm to help your transition and don’t know where to start, Scion Executive Search Nonprofit can help you retain top talent! Our clients each receive unparalleled reach into national and local networks, containing millions of executive candidate options. From executive leadership in social services to foundations, Scion Executive Search Nonprofit stands ready to connect you with the talent you’re searching for! Contact us today to get a search started or visit our website to find out more about us!

About the Author

Bailey Olderog, Technical Writer (she/her/hers)

Bailey Olderog brings her passion for storytelling and language to her role as technical writer at Scion Executive Search (SES). She is dedicated to telling the stories of others, and it has been her lifelong effort to make contributions that ensure that even the quietest of voices are heard.

Bailey has spent most of her career in service to those who serve. Her extensive public sector experience includes ghostwriting for elected officials and military generals, authoring investigations and public reports, and bringing a voice and audience to those without a platform. She believes language is an art and enjoys using language to advocate for others in ways that are professional, clear, and respectful.

Veterans’ mental health and support have been the guiding star in her career; Bailey volunteers at and has extensively advocated for veteran organizations in her native Texas. She has spent over a decade researching PTSD in veterans, using her research and connections to advocate for positive change and support for military families. She has written extensively on behalf of service members in need of assistance, as well as for military leaders seeking authentic ways to connect with their personnel. She has organized events and supported advocacy efforts for organizations such as Gideons 300 and Texas Veteran County Service Officers. On a nice day, you can often find her volunteering at a park or trail cleanup.

Bailey received her degree in political science from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where she also minored in studio art.