Dual leadership challenges – Getting the right CEO

By Patti Gillenwater

Last month, we discussed the critical role of the board chair in creating a great board culture to support your nonprofit’s success. It is profoundly important to have a high-performing board, and it is just as critical that the organization’s leader is performing well. This month, we focus on how to handle CEO selection and transition.

Nonprofits are experiencing increasing CEO transitions as a result of retirement, resignations for other opportunities and board-prompted departures. Each type of transition brings different challenges. Despite these differences, there is a series of steps to fill the leadership spot that applies to all situations.

Interim leadership The first order of business is to quickly establish the interim leadership solution previously identified in your succession plan. This may include a variety of resources and will typically include leveraging current staff to handle the day-to-day operations and designating a board member who can step into the interim CEO position. In the case of a retirement, this may not be an issue, provided you have been given adequate notice of the CEO’s intended departure date.

Prompt communication with stakeholders You must communicate quickly to your donors, board members, key partners and other stakeholders that the change has taken place (or is anticipated) and that you are quickly implementing a plan for the transition and selection of a new leader. Do not expect to keep this change a secret; you are operating in a transparent world, and word will get out much faster than you expect.

Support for staff It is easy for a board to neglect the staff or to underestimate the support and communication they will need during the transition. Getting their input and keeping them informed are vital. It is also important that all board members send a consistent message to staff members. They also need to be clear that their voices are important to the selection of their next leader but that they will not have a vote. The hiring decision is a board decision – not a staff decision.

Review of the strategic plan A leadership change is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the future direction of the nonprofit and for the board to take stock of where they want the next leader to take them. If you are operating with a current strategic plan, then this board discussion might result in a confirmation or small tweak to the current direction. If the exiting leader has accomplished the current plan or other external factors are impacting the strategy, then a more robust approach to evaluating the current and future state of the organization may be required. It is critical that the board is clear and in agreement on the future direction before launching a search.

Search committee formation With a clear vision of the future path, who you select to be on your search committee is your next task. Do not underestimate the importance of this step as the future of your organization is in their hands! At a minimum, you want the current and future board chairs and members with diverse perspectives to be included. Based on the nature of your nonprofit, you might also invite key donors or community leaders to join the committee. When you issue the invitation to join the committee, be clear as to the time commitment and expectations for members. To move through the search process in a timely manner, you must be able to gather the committee for meetings in a timely manner. If you invite non-board members to participate, you can choose to give them a vote or just ask them for their opinions. Be sure to provide them with enough information about your future goals and direction so that they can make a meaningful contribution.

Selection of your search partner It is a good practice to invite several search firms to respond to an RFP. After you receive and rank their proposals, the committee should meet with the top two or three before making the selection. Criteria to consider include the size and experience of the staff, knowledge and background of those who will conduct the search, the ability to professionally represent your organization to targeted candidates, the guarantee and post-selection support. When you meet with the search consultants, assess your ability to work well with them and to form a trusting relationship with the lead consultant. Working with a search firm is a partnership, and a good relationship is vital to everyone’s success in hiring the right leader.

Search process The search firm will work with your search committee, staff and other key stakeholders to develop a profile of your next leader. Review of your strategic plan, an organization assessment, conversations with community partners and any other activities needed to understand your operating environment create the foundation for a hire. The firm will be responsible for attracting and identifying top candidates for your position. They will also leverage the networks of your board members. When they have assessed potential candidates and narrowed the field to a slate of choices, the interview process with your committee begins.

Selection process The first round of interviews takes place with the full search committee. When you have narrowed the slate to the top two or three candidates, follow-up meetings with pairs of committee members work well to deepen your knowledge of the candidates and assess how well they fit your organization and community. References and background information should also be provided by the search firm and be considered in your decision making. Never assume that a leader who was successful in one organization is automatically going to be successful in yours.

Transition support for the new CEO It is tempting to take a break once the new CEO is in place because you have been doing double duty during the transition period. Now is not the time. A transition committee consisting of board members and at least one person from the search committee and the board member who assisted as an interim leader can form a great team to support your new CEO taking up the reins of your organization. Following this robust process enables you to introduce the new CEO to the full board and staff with the assurance of the full confidence and support of the board. These steps go a long way toward creating a smooth transition. Now you can take a break!

Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. A Philanthropy Journal Sponsor, Elinvar is a retained search and leadership development firm that specializes in serving mission driven organizations in North Carolina.

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