Nothing challenges the complacency of a board like the resignation of the organisation’s manager (AKA CEO, Executive Director, or the myriad of other names for the person who runs the place). All governance models, theories and personal experience point to recruitment of this person being one of the most important jobs a board has is to carry out.
Finding the right person is paramount and good processes can avoid expensive bad decision making, time wasting, and depletion of energy. In our sector there are many examples of good practice. I have participated in, supported, and led, several leadership transitions. This has been a privilege and learning opportunity, as I’ve had the opportunity to observe what works, and what creates stumbling blocks. Here’s the summary:
It all starts with the board
The shift to a new leader is the time when a board should make sure the organisation strategy is current, relevant, and clearly articulated. The Strategic Plan needs to be the foundation document on which to base recruitment. The goal is to hire the best person to achieve the organisation’s vision, in relation to where the organisation is at in its life cycle, not the person who is as much as possible like the person you are replacing.
The goal is to hire the best person to achieve the organisation’s vision, … not the person who is as much as possible like the person you are replacing.
While the board is clarifying the strategy, and the skills and competencies of the person they see could achieve the strategy, it is also time to get the governance house in order. In my experience, it is the boards who review their own performance (and particularly their relationship with the manager), and who are clear what type of board they want to be, that successfully and more easily welcome in a new leader.
Boards who think they can sit back once they have the new person in place are sadly mistaken. As much as this is a particularly important time in the life cycle of the organisation, it is also a particularly important time in the life cycle of the board – one where a partnership approach is required. I have observed many new leaders needing ongoing board support, sometimes for up to a year. Not for profit leadership is complex and expecting a superhuman to walk in and take over from day one is a recipe for chaos.
Not for profit leadership is complex and expecting a superhuman to walk in and take over from day one is a recipe for chaos.
The outgoing person is in there too
While succession is without a doubt the board’s job, I am yet to see a successful transition where the outgoing leader has not made a concerted effort to ensure the recruitment process is well informed and supported. No-one else know the intricacies of the role and they usually have the right stakeholder connections, networks and relationships in place.
I have seen both successes and disasters when it comes to the outgoing leader being on the selection committee. Like much of not for profit leadership, the answer to the question of the virtue of this is “it depends”. Boards need to ask what the benefits and risks are of them being on the team.
It takes a village to recruit a new leader
It is the connections and networks the exiting leader and board have that usually brings the next leader. The new person is often recruited either from within or are sent by the community of stakeholders. It is worth keeping in mind stakeholders and members have a vested interest in making sure the right person is in the job and it is my experience there are genuine risks to be considered and managed (but not impossibly so), when an organisation recruits outside of their constituency.
I am often asked whether the tasks of recruitment (i.e. advertising, recruitment, shortlisting etc) should be outsourced. I have seen this work both very well, and disastrously. See my previous article on selecting the right consultant for your organisation.
The best board recruitment sub-committees (and having one is a success factor) I have worked with include board members who have: experience with recruitment; diverse worldviews; and are able to ask critical (as in analysis, not criticising) questions. Even better are the sub-committees who include an external stakeholder on the team.
It might just be me, but the actual tasks required to recruit someone are not rocket science, but a Recruitment Plan is in fact, essential. Use someone else’s template, or list the tasks and work backwards from when the new person needs to start. Be prepared to be startled as to how long recruitment takes. The process is likely to not go to plan 100%, but a framework reduces the risk of the process going off the rails.
When it comes to choosing the best person, I have identified three essential selection tasks that lead to success. Firstly, the importance of referees cannot be understated and should include informal inquiry around the sector. Secondly, applicants presenting a strategy or some thoughts about their role in the interview is like reading a book about who they are and how they think, so it’s worth asking for this. Finally, listen for clues (and red flags) from both the applicant and their referees with regards to their values and their relationship skills. Here’s the thing about our sector: Hard skills can be taught, or even outsourced. But how someone builds and maintains relationships is usually about who they are as a leader.
This is about change management
Bringing a new leader in to the organisation will alter the dynamics of the staff and volunteer teams, and there will be a change in management/leadership approaches. Successful transitions are evident when the board and new leader work in partnership to manage this change, and it is done in a deliberate and thoughtful way.
Successful transitions are evident when the board and new leader work in partnership to manage this change, and it is done in a deliberate and thoughtful way.
We know that communication is the essence of good change management and it needs to be evident throughout with a Transition Plan. Again, putting it down on a shared document helps to stay on track without being rigid. Timely communications to the right people, with the right information, and in the right way, will make or break the transition.
Finally, how a board says “Goodbye” and “Welcome” at the same time is when we see an organisation’s values in action. I have noticed that when this is done well it provides energy and positivity to the change taking place.
Summary of the Key points in case you’re skim reading
Successful transition is not just a checklist of administration tasks, it requires:
· Organisation and governance readiness.
· A collective approach from the board, outgoing manager, and stakeholders and members.
· Good management of the process, including a recruitment committee and a Recruitment Plan.
· Using hiring tools to support the right selection.
· A change management approach.
One last thing. An experienced organisation development coach once told me that a good question for boards to ask themselves is: “What will the board who are in place in 10 years’ time think of our choice of leader?” In line with most governance functions the answer is: “If we keep it strategic, we’re doing our job”.