There are very few things more inappropriate than for a professional in a nonprofit organization to say, “I am not retiring until I have found a replacement for myself.” Yet this statement is made too often precisely because CEOs and senior management staff are very committed and invested in the mission and purposes of their organization. Often they work very long hours, are reluctant to use up their allotted vacation time, and feel a strong sense of ownership of the services they provide to members and clients.
During a recent conversation with a group of colleagues, one person asked another who was approaching his seventieth birthday when he planned to retire. In response his colleague said that he was planning on retiring in five months, but he had not yet been able to find a replacement for himself. I was surprised by this answer and so initiated a discussion about the appropriateness of the incumbent’s playing a role in the search for his or her replacement.
There are a number of reasons that we, as professionals, should not be involved first in the search process and then in the selection of our replacements, no matter whether we are transitioning to a new position or retiring from the workforce. The dynamics of these kinds of changes mandate a distance between the process of leaving and the selection of someone who will take over for us.
Inherent in every transition is a certain amount of ambivalence. Professionals who have been in their position for a number of years should have become invested not only in their particular role but also in the agency itself. Although this is the case for most employees, it is true to a greater extent for those of us who are CEOs or are in senior management positions. We lived the job on a day-to-day basis, and we know the ins and outs of the responsibilities, challenges, and the personalities of the clients/members better than anyone else. We have been able to shape the way we work to our patterns of practice and style of work. We have been successful because of the relationships we have built with our colleagues and volunteer leaders. It is essential that whoever takes over for us has these same opportunities, and it is very difficult for senior staff to review resumes, interview candidates, and select a person for the position they presently hold without imposing themselves on the candidate.
The search process for the CEO is an opportunity for the board of directors to review the job description, responsibilities, and overall role of the executive. If the incumbent assumes too much of an active role in the search, it may shortcut this incredibly important part of the process. Although it is appropriate for the incumbent, if asked by the board, to identify potential candidates who are currently working in a variety of positions in other nonprofit organizations, the CEO should be cautious about serving on the search committee, interviewing candidates, or offering definitive positions on who should be offered the job.
So, when you are in the process of transitioning out of a job, and you are thinking about who will follow you, please give serious thought to your role in the search for a replacement. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas about the position with your executive or, in the case of an executive search, with the board president; that would be helpful in the board’s development of a job description for the position.
Yet, after sharing your thoughts about the position and possibly identifying potential candidates, you should absent yourself from the process. By doing so you are forcing others to think about the needs of the organization and the staffing component in ways they may not have thought about earlier because they were depending on your expertise and experience. The search process can potentially be a time of creative thinking and pave the way for new developments. By stepping back you can give others the opportunity to creatively respond to the nonprofit’s needs as they consider filling your big shoes.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.