A Love Letter to Exiting CEO's
Updated: Jan 15
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time working with nonprofits on executive searches.
I’ve written blogs about tips for conducting successful searches and about the stress a search can wreak on a nonprofit’s staff and board.
But what I haven’t written about is how incredibly difficult these transitions are on the departing CEO (and by “departing,” I don’t mean ascending to heaven, although often this leave-taking does signal moving on to a better place).
Given what I’ve witnessed (and experienced myself), I thought I’d use this month’s blog to write a love letter to CEO’s who are exiting their organizations.
Dear Nonprofit CEO:
Let’s not mince words. Planning your transition from an organization you’re dedicated to is a lot like writing your last will and testament: it’s easy to put off doing and not pleasant to think about.
What’s especially difficult is that once you’re gone, you won’t have control over the very thing you’ve spent so many sleepless nights thinking about.
You’ll miss so much! The familiarity of your office. The colleagues you’ve slogged through the mud with to do the impossible. The impact of your work.
You might even miss a few of your board members (or, maybe not...).
And even though you’re ready to kiss the constant fundraising and stress good-bye, leaving is much much harder than you thought it would be.
Can we be frank? You’re worried.
You’re worried that the board will pick a bozo.
OK, maybe not a bozo exactly, but you’re worried that the board won’t pick someone who cares as much about the work as you do.
You’re worried that the new person won’t know how to do this job or won’t do it as well.
You’re worried about whether or not or how the staff will adjust to the new CEO.
You’re worried about what your funders will think.
You’re worried that the progress you’ve achieved won’t be sustained.
You’re worried that the organization will shift direction in a weird way.
You’re worried that your legacy will vanish as soon as you have one foot out the door.
How do I know all this?
I know this because to be a good CEO, nonprofit leaders must spend their every waking hour worrying about the details, making sure the trains are running on time (and that all types of passengers are happy), and trying to see what’s coming around the corner so that the organization is well positioned for the future.
And since you’re used to worrying about your organization, your natural reaction is to worry about the search.
And that worry is exacerbated because your role in finding your replacement is next to nil.
That letting go – letting the board do its job without much input from you – is, let’s face it, unnerving.
This is your ship and suddenly you’re not steering it through a major passageway.
So, what should you do?
Focus on those things you can control and start thinking about your future.
Whether it’s planning your next career move or deciding how exactly you will spend your time during retirement, you need to dedicate time to thinking about yourself as someone who is separate from the organization.
Yes, that means actually thinking about yourself for a change. And…
Taking a deep breath when you feel upset that things are happening around you and without you that will affect your organization and over which you have no control.
Trusting the board you’ve put in place and trusting the search process.
Realizing that you may feel frustrated beyond belief that you can’t be involved in the selection of your successor.
Knowing that others also care deeply about the organization.
Realizing that there is a collective wisdom in making a CEO selection.
Knowing that this can happen without you.
It means recognizing that this transition isn’t easy for you while doing everything possible to make it go as smoothly as possible. You’ll feel better if you plan a good hand-off of information and contacts.
It means understanding that the new CEO may have a personality that is opposite of yours, skills that are completely different, new perspectives, and new strategies for approaching the work.
Mostly, it means taking the time to take care yourself emotionally by talking to friends and family, taking long walks, getting massages, planning a trip or doing whatever it is that makes you feel good.
It also involves acknowledging your hard work and thanking yourself for the time and energy you’ve dedicated to making your organization great.
Finally, it means letting go and allowing the new CEO to run the organization.
Know that it will never be the same without you but realize that things will probably be just fine.
I wish you the best moving forward.
Pat Libby Consulting is a San Diego firm that offers nonprofit consulting and philanthropy consulting services. Get in touch if you are interested in guidance on your next executive search, or to schedule a free consultation.