While the departure of an executive director is not something that can always be planned, there are things that can be done along the way to ensure the organization is not crippled when this happens, because sooner or later, it will. Executive directors play such key roles representing an organization to all of its constituents. Often, he or she really is the face of what you do, so it’s not surprising that a departure can send waves of anxiety through an organization’s staff and board.
Succession planning applies also to boards of directors. Many boards have a founding board chair who has become the driving force of the organization, functioning almost as staff. It is just as critical that the board members have a plan for what happens when that person wants to step down or cannot serve any longer due to health or other reasons.
There are certain things that can aid an organization dealing with a leadership departure, things that will help them come out stronger in the end.
- Have a plan before the vacancy occurs. Every board should play the “what if” game at least once a year, talking through how they would handle everything from a PR crisis to a death. Think about the worst thing that could happen, and come up with a reasonable strategy. Who will speak to the press? Who will call the donors? Who will manage staff or board meetings? By making this a regular part of your annual meeting, you remove the awkwardness of talking about everyone’s greatest fears, and you will be ready if and when a bad situation happens.
- Make the search a priority in the case of an executive director. It is important to have a realistic expectation about the time it will take to hire a new executive director. This includes resources required for the search, methods you will use to reach potential candidates, negotiating strategies and timing. Involving the outgoing executive director can be helpful, but that person should play only an advisory role in the decisions. This article outlines a few things that can be done to create a positive transition for everyone.
- Ask the board governance committee to develop a succession plan for the board chair. If your organization has a long-standing board chair, ask a board committee to develop a plan in the case of an emergency. Know in advance who will take over so that down time is limited. If your organization does not have a board governance committee, appoint an ad hoc committee to consider this question and report back to the full board.
- Keep moving the mission forward. While it is unreasonable to think everything will continue as usual, there will be critical tasks that must take place. The outgoing ED can be very helpful in delineating these, and should be asked to do so. The board should prioritize these duties and consider what additional outside support you may need. The same exercise should take place with the outgoing board chair.
- Communicate internally. To avoid confusion, be sure communication channels between staff and board members are clear. Establish liaison roles on both sides, and make sure staff members know who has been assigned additional duties so everyone can lend their support as needed.
- Download information. Most likely, the departing executive director will be carrying a good bit of information about donors, key relationships, and other details in his/her head. Be sure this information is shared and recorded in the database, if it is not already there. Similarly, the outgoing board chair should have a series of planned meetings with the incoming board chair, if circumstances allow.
- Inform key stakeholders. Share information early and often with your constituents. Gratefully acknowledge the departing executive director’s or board chair’s contributions and highlight new leadership. Use all communication channels to reassure your audiences that the work is going forward; then share the exciting news of a new hire with them ahead of the press release.