Home > Don Crocker, Executive Leadership, Executive Search & Transition Management > Change at the Top – Risks and Opportunities: What Does the Research Say?

Change at the Top – Risks and Opportunities: What Does the Research Say?

The findings from the latest Daring to Lead study from CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation are sobering. Why sobering?  Because while we work with many engaged boards and funders who are helping to strengthen the executive leadership of the sector, there are many others who do not realize the extent of the issues or are not aware of potential solutions.  This national study reflects the trends we see here in the tri-state area, and their recommendations also mirror best practices we have found to work.

Several aspects of nonprofit leadership are explored, but here we focus on highlights relating to Executive Transitions, a growing part of our work:

  • As reported in previous Daring to Lead studies, the large majority of executive directors –67 % in 2011– report that they will be leaving their jobs within the next five years. And an additional 7% have already given notice.  Executive and boards are still reluctant to talk proactively about succession and just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan.
  • 33% percent of current executives followed a leader who was fired or forced to resign, indicating the frequency of mis-hires and unclear expectations between boards and executives across the sector.
  • Many boards see executive transition ending with a successful hire. And many new leaders in the study were challenged by establishing effective partnerships with their boards. These executives were confounded by the lack of strategy, resources, and personal support they got from their boards.

The author’s “Calls to Action” include strategies that will help prepare for these executive departures, and ensure healthy transitions and productive, effective, and satisfied new leaders:

  • Creation of emergency succession and transition plans to ensure continuity in the event of an unexpected departure
  • Recognition by funders of the importance of successful leadership transition to the strength and stability of grantees and, where possible, stepped up support during the transition
  • Ongoing board involvement and support for new executives beyond the hire

From our own experience with executive transition clients, we would add:

  • Board engagement in a comprehensive executive search and transition plan  helps to assure a successful hire and makes the most of the opportunities in transition. Our approach includes three phases: 1- an organizational assessment to determine the organization’s current needs and the qualities necessary for a new executive to succeed, 2- a thorough search for a new leader involving all stakeholders, and 3- “on-boarding” coaching  for the new leader to aid integration into the organization and to foster productive relationships with the board and staff.   In addition, transition to a new leader is often aided by the placement of an interim executive director who manages the day to day operations.

A chief executive transition also provides the opportunity for boards to explore organizational restructuring including administrative outsourcing, strategic alliances, and mergers.

There are, indeed, opportunities available during “Change at the Top.”  Following the recommendations of the researchers provides opportunities for nonprofit organizations to both explore – openly – opportunities for the future of the organization and find the right next leader to help them build that future.

Tell us what your experience has been in the executive transition process as an executive director, board member or funder.  What works and what could be better?

Don Crocker, CEO

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