Executive Transitions: 6 Lessons from a Professional Interim ED

human resources management organizational culture strategic management Apr 09, 2022
Capacity Experts: Executive Transitions

Executive transitions are a difficult period for most organizations. However, after serving as an Interim Executive Director for about 10 years, I can also say that this can also be an incredible period for positive growth. During the 5 transitions I have facilitated and the countless organizations I have advised on their executive transitions, I have learned many lessons. The biggest, though, is that an executive transition is one of the most vulnerable periods for a nonprofit organization, irrespective of whether the organization is doing great or in crisis at the beginning of the transition. Furthermore, how that transition is managed will inevitably impact the credibility, culture, and future direction of that organization.

1. Both Planned and Unplanned Executive Transitions are Challenging.

Irrespective of whether the departure of the executive director is on positive terms or negative terms, the success of the new incoming executive is primarily contingent on how the transition is managed.

It is more likely that employees will feel secure and safe when an executive director leaves on good terms and there is a preemptive succession plan in place. A succession plan, though, is one tool of many in the transition toolbox. It cannot eliminate some of the growing pains that the organization will go through on its own. This is not to say that organizations should not invest in this critical tool. On the contrary, without a succession plan in place, the process is much more fragile.

Unplanned transitions can occur due to a personal circumstance that directly impacts the outgoing executive director. These can include having a baby, a move, or even a very good job offer. Other unexpected transitions can be attributable to unfortunate circumstances, such as illness, a family emergency, or the death or firing of an Executive Director. These transitions are typically more delicate because they can bring to the surface a great deal of organizational trauma, which can also lead staff to feel fear about the future of the organization. This fear can bring out the worst impulses in some employees.

2. Succession plans are a key component in the “Executive Transition Toolbox”.

An executive transition in an organization is a critical period that will impact the short-and-long-term sustainability of an organization. Thus, it can be the building block to great things or it can be a destabilizing period. This is a time in which all of the weaknesses of the organization will come to light due to internal power plays, fear, uncertainty about roles and responsibilities during the transition period, increased work requirements for employees during the transition, and unrealistic expectations pertaining to how much can be accomplished in a transition. As noted earlier, these feelings can be reduced with a succession plan that is developed via an inclusive approach with staff beforehand. This does not eliminate all of the bumps that happen in a transition, though. The management component is essential.

3. The role of an Interim Executive Director must be clearly defined.

Whether the transition process has been planned for or is sudden and unexpected, one of the most effective ways to ensure smooth executive transitions is by hiring an interim executive director. This step, though, requires everyone in the organization to have a clear understanding of the type of work an interim should and should not be doing. 

An interim executive director will help triage priorities, manage day-to-day practices, and solve some of the structural, legal, financial, and cultural challenges that the organization is facing in order to achieve at least two goals: 1) prepare the organization for the incoming ED to be successful, and 2) minimize turn-over. Succession and implementation plans often identify other goals such as building an equitable and inclusive work environment, addressing organizational infrastructure, and improving staff morale to name a few.

It should be noted that many people are unfamiliar with the benefits of an interim executive director (IED). As a result, they often have serious misconceptions about the purpose or functions of this position. Board members in particular, even if they are the ones recruiting the IED, are often fearful that external stakeholders will view the presence of an IED as a sign that the organization is undergoing a period of instability. Others on staff will see this as an opportunity to either advocate for themselves or create a new narrative regarding their experiences and the problems the organization is facing. An IED will help to harness this energy and create the foundation for a stronger organization.  

Others during executive transitions will question the financial benefit for the organization of bringing on an interim because they do not see the value of waiting to begin the hiring or search process. However, research shows that not preparing the organization for the transition in leadership can result in either a high staff turnover rate or the incoming permanent executive director leaving within a year.

An IED will help match and prepare the organization to attract and retain the right type of candidate for the organization by either working with a search firm or directly conducting the recruitment. An IED will also conduct a holistic analysis of an organization, either themselves or with an evaluation expert. They will then make professional recommendations through a neutral lens that is driven by the best interest of the organization, rather than self-interest. 

An IED will also ensure that during the transition the organization is: compliant with state and federal laws, optimizing systems, operating quality programs, adequately tending to the finances, and running an ethical and effective organization. Furthermore, they will make tough decisions that a long-term executive director may not want to live with.

4. Executive transitions must be managed with neutrality instead of self-interest.

In order to ensure a neutral lens, the IED should ideally not be considered a candidate for the permanent executive director position. Although an IED becoming a permanent executive director is not always at odds with what is best for a nonprofit organization, it is better for the transition to avoid or minimize conflicts of interest. If the IED is a candidate for the permanent position or is being mentored to become the permanent executive, for example, safeguards must be put into place to ensure the organization’s decision-making is focused on stabilizing the organization’s infrastructure and culture and not on what is most convenient for the person who is facilitating the transition.

5. Board members should not step into day-to-day operations.

During this period of transition, board members frequently want to become involved more intimately with the day-to-day operations. This impulse should be resisted. Board members often do not understand the management realities of an organization and can cause more harm than good. They also should not be involved in how an IED manages the staff because it can cause confusion. Particularly since group building and management systems are frequently approached differently during an interim period.

6. Executive Transitions Can Be Transformative

Executive transitions require patience, strategic focus, plans that are adaptable to changing needs and realities, and effective leaders that can steer organizations through uncertain times. When managed effectively, organizations come out more focused, stronger, more unified, and better aligned with the mission of the organizations.

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