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The Show Must Go On- When Leadership leaves.

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Show Must Go On- When Leadership leaves

Several of our recent blogs have focused on development team turnover – why it happens, how to avoid it, and how to successfully onboard new staff when they join your organization to support their success. But what happens when the turnover is out of your control… what happens to the organization when there’s a change in executive leadership?

The turnover rate for nonprofit Executive Directors is between 18% and 22% annually! As we’ve discussed, the average tenure of a fund development professional has been reported to be only 16 months (Chronicle of Philanthropy), while nonprofit executive directors and CEOs are in their roles for an average of six years (Nonprofit Quarterly).

I’m relieved to find these numbers in professional journals. Personally, I have experienced CEO transition at four organizations. It’s nice to have validation that I needn’t take it personally!

The idealized non-profit CEO (or Executive Director) appears as a longstanding champion of their organization – the face of the mission in the community. They are successfully building relationships with local donors who are as committed to that exec as they are to the important work being carried out through programs and by staff.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. (But that’s another blog …)

Because EVEN WHEN IT IS … that organizational leader will eventually decide to retire, need to retire, or choose to apply their skills elsewhere.

In an ideal situation there is a clear succession plan; perhaps a second in command who has been trained and “socialized” to assume leadership. This would be a person who has the support of the Board and the staff as they assume new leadership responsibilities. Alternatively, that second in command is a strong leader who will be able to assure continuity during a search and transition.

Of course, that isn’t always the case either.

But EVEN WHEN IT IS… the organization’s team will look to each other and the remaining leadership team for guidance and support during the time of transition. In times of uncertainty, even the most level-headed team member may become unsettled

Two tenets of leadership become critical in times of executive transition, transparency, and optimism.

In times of uncertainty – People will write their own stories! If the organization is not sharing the strategy and tactics – People will create their own narrative and it is often self-defeating. Transparency will allow staff to move forward in their own roles with an understanding of the path being pursued by the Board, new ED, or search committee. There doesn’t need to be transparency regarding the reasons for transition – or the challenges being faced by other departments – but transparency is key in stopping the fictional (and often paranoid) storytelling that will otherwise occur.

Optimism – for the mission and for the team – is also key to continuing forward momentum and stopping a tide of other departures. People want to be reassured that their important work will continue under new leadership and that they are valued in their role.

But what can you do as an employee during executive transition?

  1. Keep doing your job. It’s important to donors, your mission, your team members, and your image!

  2. Make sure you’re up to date on best practices – a new ED will both rely on your experience and have their own ideas for how things should be done… make sure you can evaluate their ideas without being defensive about how “it’s always been done.”

  3. Don’t fall into the trap of speculating and gossiping – it won’t help! (this is where the destructive storytelling starts)

  4. Update your resume for your own benefit; if the new ED is an outsider you’ll want to introduce yourself with a good understanding and presentation of your success in your role and the skills that you bring to the organization.

  5. Update your wish list of changes you’d like to see in the organization while remaining realistic about the true opportunities for evolving practices. This exercise will be helpful to the Board and the new ED.

  6. Network a lot; yes, we need to prepare for the worst-case scenarios… but networking also provides you with an opportunity to build your personal brand and strengthen your ability to advocate for the organization’s future.

Team Kat & Mouse is ready to support your organization through change with team coaching, executive onboarding, and hiring support.

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