We’re not robots: Why executive transitions are stressful and what you can do about it
Updated: Mar 26
Executive transitions are emotional.
They’re emotional because the circumstances that lead to change, whatever they are, tend to be emotional.
Often you’re replacing a CEO or other senior leader who’s been with the nonprofit for a long time – it might be the founder – and you’re worried the place will never be the same again.
Sometimes you’re even replacing someone who’s just died.
Sometimes you‘re replacing someone who is beloved among the organization’s staff and community members.
Sometimes you’re sad about the transition but you know in your heart that the organization is ready for a change.
And sometimes you’re replacing someone who wasn’t a good fit at all and you’re nervous that you’ll make a similar judgement error with the new hire.
Executive transitions at nonprofit organizations are especially stressful because the board has the ultimate responsibility for choosing the replacement.
That can leave the staff - those hardworking folks who put in endless hours in support of the cause – feeling pretty helpless (and worried) about who will be the new boss.
So how do you mitigate the stress of an executive transition?
1. Be intentionally transparent. Make sure that everyone associated with the nonprofit – staff, board and community members – understands the timeline for the process.
2. Make sure the senior staff and board members have a say about the qualifications and characteristics your organization wants in its next leader. Have a series of thoughtful discussions about what you treasure about the person who has held the position and what you’d like to see in a new leader (see my blog on the Secrets of finding the ideal candidate for tips on this process). Once you’ve done that, develop the job announcement to match what you’re seeking in a candidate. This is particularly important for staff, as it allows them to have a voice in the process. If the current CEO is in good standing, you can involve that person in this discussion as a way of obtaining their invaluable input without involving them in the actual search.
3. Treat internal candidates with a high degree of respect.
Let’s face it – sometimes there are strong internal candidates who may be perfect for the job; other times, internal applicants aren’t…
Regardless of the circumstances, be sure to recognize the level of commitment that internal candidates have made to your nonprofit, and treat them accordingly (that is, give them the courtesy of an interview for goodness sake!).
4. Provide an opportunity for senior staff (but not the current CEO if that person is still at the helm) to interview the finalists.
As I’ve stated previously, with a nonprofit CEO search, the board alone has responsibility for selecting the candidate.
However, the senior staff should be invited to meet the finalists in a separate session from the board and asked to provide their opinion of the candidates to either the search consultant or search committee chair since they are the folks who will eventually live with this candidate for 50 plus hours a week.
Providing the staff access to the candidates allows them to have meaningful input into the process without usurping the board’s role.
The same is true when the CEO is leading the search for a Vice President, COO, etc.
You want to be sure that you hire someone who people like and have confidence in as a leader.
5. Keep the current CEO in the loop of what is happening during the search to let them know that things are moving along (it will calm nerves).
6. Make sure you plan a lovely celebration for the outgoing CEO/senior staff member!
Sometimes we get caught up in orienting and welcoming the shiny new person that we forget to honor and celebrate the work of our outgoing leader. Hosting an event, making a public announcement, finding time for major donors to thank the outgoing executive will go a long way toward making everyone feel good about the transition.
Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant and philanthropy consultant. Her executive search consulting services have been helping organizations transition into new leadership for more than three decades. Find out more about Pat's services here, and contact her today for a free consultation.