Board Cafe: When the Executive Director Leaves: The Job of the Board's Executive Transition Committee

Board Cafe

When the Executive Director Leaves: The Job of the Board's Executive Transition Committee

By Tim Wolfred

The departure of an agency executive demands intensive leadership and activity by the board of directors. The obvious primary task is the search for a new chief executive. But regardless of the circumstances under which the ED is departing, a healthy transition usually entails many more tasks as well:

  1. Arranging a proper send-off for the departing executive, and establishing a consistent message about the departure and transition;
  2. Determining what work the organization needs to do to prepare for the hire (perhaps time to work through a sense of loss, mid-level planning, major board and structural changes, resolution of a long-standing ambiguity about mission);
  3. The selection, if needed, of an interim executive, who can act in roles ranging from "caretaker" to "change agent;"
  4. Deciding how to conduct the search and screening and with what outside help;
  5. An "organizational audit" to determine the key challenges for the next CEO; and
  6. Planning a structured entry for the newly hired executive that sets him or her up for success--welcoming rituals, community introductions, performance goals, an evaluation protocol.

To coordinate all these facets of an executive turnover, some boards find it helpful to create an ad hoc Transition Committee. This committee should include one or two key board officers, or the officers as a group may choose to serve as the Transition Committee. An important member and resource to the committee is a staff administrator, who will be a crucial communications link with the entire staff group and provide logistical support (and who is not a candidate for the job).

Reassurance to key stakeholders is a major benefit of a visible and energized Transition Committee. Staff are usually destabilized by the departure of a good (or even a bad) leader. Donors can also be lost. A board swiftly and decisively swinging into action as a solid bridge between EDs gives confidence to all agency constituents about the future.

Money is also an incentive to early convening of a Transition Committee. Foundations who already have made significant programmatic investments in an agency know the value of a well-managed CEO transition to an agency's vitality, and they may be willing to provide some transition funds. As part of its grant application, the committee will be asked to develop a work plan and time line and to identify any consultants it may want to use for transition guidance.

As members of the board of directors, you'll want to be sure you find the right executive for the job, and that the organization is ready for that individual's leadership. A conscientious Transition Committee can make the difference. Good luck in your transitions! 

Original publication date: 9/08/1998

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