Exit Strategies – 10 Strategies for Successful Leadership Change

By Richard Marker

Readers, students, and clients all know that I urge all funders to take “exit strategies” seriously as an indispensable component of effective grantmaking. A workshop on this subject is a popular unit of our courses and a frequently requested conference presentation.

An attendee of one of those conferences who did not attend my session had heard that I had spoken about exit strategies and contacted me to see if I would share the PPT. While I was open to do so, I learned that her interest was not about exit strategies for their grantmaking but her own. Approaching retirement, she was looking for guidelines to help the foundation she headed have a smooth transition to a successor.

In reviewing my funder exit strategies guidelines, it was clear that only some of those apply to personnel changes, and for those that do, it is only by extrapolation. Nevertheless, I realized, I myself have been in her position, or supervised or advised many others who were transitioning and I wondered if I had learned anything. [One of the advantages of having had 5 careers is that there is a collection of unsystematic but suggestive data worth looking at.]

Some of the following strategies are from the perspective of the one transitioning; others reflect the perspective of the organization. Together they provide a blueprint for effective leadership transitions:

1. There is no perfect time to leave. There is always more to do and something not yet done. Most in the private sector take that for granted; those in the non-for-profit sector often take leadership responsibilities so seriously that we feel a sense of guilt that we haven’t finished, or a sense of annoyance that the leader hasn’t completed some key part of the work. Gradually – probably belatedly – I came to see, if I had finished, the job wouldn’t have been big enough. Projects can finish, organizations rarely do.

2. Everyone is replaceable [with the possible exception of a brand-new startup fully dependent on the creative innovations of a single individual. Much to say about that, but not in this posting.] Those who believe that they are not replaceable are probably leaving the organizations in a needlessly fragile place. Our replacements may not look like us, sound like us, do like us, lead like us, or even dream like us, but they may be exactly the right person to take the organization to levels of accomplishment we hadn’t imagined, or, if we are honest, correct for our weaknesses that had been masked or overlooked by our hard-won successes.

3. Charisma is a Fragile Leadership Style. Therefore, our leadership style, from the very beginning, needs to be committed to building an organization stronger than the one we inherited, with viable bench strength and empowered decision making. I have told this next story previously, but in this context, it is worth re-telling.

Very early in my career, when I was still in grad school in the late 60’s, I had a part-time position on a university campus. I was charged with overseeing and developing a student/faculty group. Lo these many years later it is hard even for me to believe, but I somehow developed a guru leadership style. Groupies followed me around. Big crowds came to our events. It was a different era and I thought I was doing something new and noteworthy. While I was in no way abusive [and decades later, I feel comfortable saying that], it was a very personality centered leadership model that had no sustainability. When I completed my graduate studies and I accepted a prestigious full-time position elsewhere, everything collapsed immediately.

I was crushed. I promised myself that I would never again use a cult of personality leadership style and would always err on the side of empowerment and decentralization. I daresay that in many subsequent leadership roles, that worked.

Leadership too based on the power of one charismatic individual is the most fragile model and least adaptive to successful succession and transition. [When this does exist, and we all know that it does, it typically calls for some sort of interim or transitional system to get an organization on track.]

4. So is a Bureaucratic One. If charismatic style is not ideal, a strictly bureaucratic one isn’t either. An organization needs to be encouraged to reach beyond its grasp and dream beyond its limits. Hopefully, that ethos is ever present, but it certainly needs to be a part of any succession planning. A leader should model that visioning but may not monopolize it. Transition is an ideal time for the articulation of those visions and dreams among all levels of an organization since it can motivate and inform subsequent decision making.

It is tempting for well-run organizations to look to “stay the course” at a time of leadership transition. That sounds easy, but should be adopted with some care. Any leadership change is itself a kind of intervention even when an organization chooses not to change radically or adjust its priorities. Even a well-groomed successor is not a clone and even a successful organization needs to decide if it wants to affirm what it has done or if this is the perfect time to try one of the roads not yet taken.

5. Step Away but Dont Disappear. This next point calls for a very tricky and delicate balance: when planning to step down, a leader needs to begin stepping away from decisions that will be implemented after the succession. That is not the same, though, as being “out of there” too quickly. Genuine discussions with top board and staff about this question can mark the difference between a smooth and honored transition and one surrounded by a sense of abandonment.

6. BeOutgoing.” Organizations often have genuine and authentic affection for the contributions of their long-time leader. Wouldn’t it be great to have her around a while longer? Maybe give him an office, and an “advisory” role? As a rule, not a great idea. There will be a new leader and that leader needs space, emotionally and physically and organizationally. One would hope that open channels will continue to exist for the times when the new leader seeks advice, but at a distance. Stakeholders at every level should know and see that a change has happened and if the optics and semiotics convey that it may not have, it is very easy to set up a counterproductive dynamic that hampers the new leader and hobbles the organization. [I know that there have been exceptions that have worked very well, but one should enter into those arrangements with great caution and care. The trade-off of the positive of institutional memory vs the negative of controlling from the metaphoric grave can be very real.]

7. Allow Time to beNew.” For all of the planning by the outgoing leader and board, a new person needs time and space to be new. My advice to new professionals, at any level, has always been “you are only new once.” There are questions one can ask, conversations that one can have, and people one can approach with a most open agenda only when one is new. After 6 months or so, it is assumed that the new person has his or her own ideas, opinions, reactions, and recommendations. Moreover, it is often awkward to reach out after 6 months or so and then say, “I have been here for 6 months; sorry we haven’t spoken yet.” Boards need to build in an acceptance of a certain amount of time for that kind of discovery. The outgoing leader needs to resist the temptation to say, “I could have told you, why didn’t you ask me first?” New people need to have their own relationships, their own opinions, and their own business model.

8. Document. Outgoing leaders owe it to their successors and to their organizations to document procedures, time lines, and any other operational matters. The likelihood is that long-time leaders have so internalized many procedures that they may not even think to commit these matters to a memo. But it is not fair to a new executive or the organization you are leaving for them to miss a filing deadline or a key communal meeting or some other “do it all the time” matter because it was so ingrained in you that you didn’t think to document it.

It is often useful for an outgoing leader to sit with a key administrative person and other executives to review the documentation and time lines. [This is not about human resource matters that, of course, need to be handled according to confidential protocols, but are about the operations of an organization.] Having overseen or supervised many transitions, I can attest that errors of omission are the norm, not the exception.

9. Board Role. The board should have a transition committee to oversee the transition. This may or may not be the selection committee or the executive committee. Since any outgoing professional had competing claims and expectations, and any new professional has even more, there needs to be a committee with authority to endorse what is to be done by whom and when, and to run interference with those who have legitimate competing preferences.

10. Public Positioning. A key part of the transition process is what is said to the public and when. Once upon a time it was possible to keep information fully quiet. Today, the number of stakeholders involved in and impacted by any not-for-profit, and the ubiquity of social networking makes such secrecy impossible. Therefore, the public stance of any transition should be planned early and information presented pro-actively. It makes it possible to respect the outgoing leader, obviate any rumors about the transition, and give helpful information about the succession and successor.

This list does not present a time line since situations can vary so widely. Moreover, there are two very specific situations that require special attention and, therefore, require more customized responses to the general recommendations listed in this post. One is when a foundation shifts from donor/family led to professionally directed. The second is when a nonprofit organization shifts from being founder directed to a successor. These are rarely straightforward matters of leadership succession and require a very different, and often very sensitive planning process.

Thank you to my unmet foundation colleague for her query on leadership exit strategies. I appreciate that she encouraged me to offer these thoughts. I invite others to add to or fine tune this list of recommendations.

Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.