Transitions are usually very anxiety producing both for the new person who is coming into the organization and also for the senior professional staff that has been employed by the nonprofit organization. Many articles focus on the impact on the CEO who is leaving the position and on the new CEO who is coming into the organization. However, the key senior professional staff that may have been employed by the organization for a long time are not the primary concern when there is a change in the top leadership of the agency. It is generally assumed that people who have been engaged in their work for a considerable amount of time will aclimate themselves to the new CEO and the CEO will be wise enough to bring the present staff along as the change in leadership takes place.
The process of changing leadership often begins a long time before the formal search process is initiated by the organization. Based on the experience of several colleagues in North America and in Israel I would like to review some basic principles and guidelines for involving the senior professional staff of nonprofit agencies in the selection and engagement of a new CEO. Although this may seem like a non-issue it is quite evident from my discussions that organizations not only miss opportunities to learn from the wisdom of people who have been and are committed to their organizations but also alienate the most dedicated senior professional staff and risk their leaving the employ of the agency soon after the encumbant CEO leaves the position.
At the point in time when the board of the nonprofit has been informed that the present CEO is leaving the position there will, no doubt, be informal discussions about the process of finding someone new to fill the position. A search committee will be formed consisting of board members, community representatives, and stakeholders who may have special interests in the organization. It is at this time that either the president of the board of directors or the newly appointed chairperson of the search committee should meet with the senior professional staff to glean from their experience, knowledge and expertise what they think the agency’s needs are, and what they would think would be the appropriate profile for an incoming CEO.
The purpose of this consultative discussion is to understand how the organization is perceived by the people who have been involved and committed to providing services to the community and have achieved a level of seniority in the organization. The communication is not only one way, that is the search committee learning what the staff members think about the search, its process and the criteria employed to evaluate the candidates but also has to do with the senior staff having a feeling of the board’s commitment to maintain the same high level of professional service provided by the organization and reaffirming the board’s valuing of the senior staff’s role in the organization. The affirmation of the staff is a very important part of the process during these transitions.
Once the CEO’s job description has been developed and there is an appropriate list of qualifications candidates will be solicited. Once the list of viable candidates has been screened and approved by the search committee the interviewing process begins. At some point in this process when a number of serious candidates have been identified then it is time for the senior staff to meet these people. In fact, if one of the candidates has not asked about meeting the senior staff then this should be a red flag for the search committee. Any candidate that is really interested in being the CEO of the agency should request to meet with the agency’s staff so that there is an opportunity for the person to understand who he may be working with in the future.
It is also important for the senior staff to have an opportunity to engage with the candidate both in a one-to-one engagement as well as in a group. A great deal can be learned from the way a person conducts him/herself with people who will be subordinates. Although discussions rarely focus on the details of the organization or the current structure, the engagement provides an opportunity for both the candidate and the senior staff to develop an understanding of approaches to work; expectations each has of the other; and how relationships will be managed during this transitional period.
During the one-to-one meetings both the CEO candidate and the present staff members will have a chance to discuss their experiences at the organization and their expectations for the future. Senior staff want to know that there seniority will be respected and that there will be continuing opportunities for ongoing learning and advancement. At the same time, the staff members want to know the candidates perspective on process and on the person’s ideas about moving the organization forward.
It is only natural for staff members to be anxious about their future. For some people they may look forward to advancement and to continue with the organization. There may be other staff members who are interested in using the transition as a time to change their job description or titles. Some people look forward to fewer responsibilities and others look forward to accepting new professional challenges. If there has not been an involvement in the search process by either participating in an individual or group meeting the staff members that are left out will not be confident in their future with the agency.
They may begin to look for professional alternatives either with or without the adjustment period to search for an alternative position with another agency. This will cause more of a disruption in the organization as senior staff members contemplate making a change at the same time that there is major transition in the organization as a new CEO is appointed and begins to engage with the staff, the clients and the community. In this situation the agency board has to be aware of the implications for the senior staff and do everything possible to ensure they are part of the future of the agency and they should be included so they feel they are inside and not outside process.
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.