Making Room for the New Exec

office chairMove OverMaking Room for the New Executive While Not Kicking the Sitting CEO Out of Her Seat:
Dealing with Executive Transitions

Sometimes people with the best intentions do not know when it is time to move on. Many chief executive officers often have a particularly hard time letting go of the reins of authority. Even though they may say they want to allow another person to assume responsibility for the organization they have directed, guided, and nurtured over a number of years, it is not easy for them to move aside and provide the space for the new person to assume the executive role.

For that reason, the incoming executive must be particularly sensitive to the impact of the change in status on the outgoing CEO. Of course the new person will have his or her own ideas about the way things should be done, but there must be a respectful approach to change. Although it might be obvious that changes need to be made, this does not mean that all existing polices, practices, and procedures should be discarded outright. Both the exiting executive and the incoming executive should be demonstrating a sensitivity to and understanding of each other as they negotiate change in their professional careers.

In the best case scenario retiring incumbent executives recognize that they either have to coordinate their leaving with the newly appointed person or they have to just leave the position and provide enough background information so the arriving professional can find his or her way through to assume responsibility without too much difficulty. Of course, it is much better to have a planned transition where both the outgoing and incoming executives can spend time together. During this period the two people can discuss both the formal aspects of the task of running the nonprofit organization and the political and cultural nuances that are unique to this particular organization.

During this transition, there will be a series of meetings involving just the two of them and additional meetings with staff members, board members, and other volunteer and political leaders in the community. It may even be appropriate to schedule meetings with the relevant people who either work for or represent private foundations and public agencies that provide funding to the organization. The importance of the new and former CEO presenting a united front both in internal meetings or when engaging with people in the community goes without saying.

During the course of these meetings, there will be an important learning process taking place for both people. On one hand, the retiring executive will have the opportunity to communicate a great deal of information about the organization and its leadership to the new person. This information will include both factual data and historical and impressionistic comments that will communicate a great deal about the culture of the organization. Often these comments will be more valuable to the incoming executive than just learning the straight facts about the historical development of the agency.

This transition period when both the new and former CEO people are working together can be a very short period of time (a week or two weeks) or it can be extended to several months. Its length depends on the amount of planning that has been done and the willingness of the incumbent to spend time with his or her successor. If the transition extends for a while, then the dynamic of how the two people work together can be worked through before they begin engaging with other staff and relevant parties.

During their work together, as important as it is for the new CEO to demonstrate respect for all his or her predecessor has accomplished, it is also imperative for the retiring CEO to provide space for the successor to introduce ideas and to engage with the staff in testing out new approaches to the administration of the organization. For the time they spend together to be constructive, there has to be an open exchange of ideas. There is a tendency for the former CEO to respond to the successor’s ideas with comments like “We do not do it that way” or “At this agency it would never work” or “You are really barking up the wrong tree.” These kinds of statements tend to demonstrate the CEO’s inability to make room for the new person to find his or her way and to begin to create a place for him- or herself in the organization.

If the CEO is incapable of making room for the incoming CEO, then it is best for this overlap period to be very short – just a week or two. Then the incoming CEO will be free to chart his or her own way and administrative style to deal with issues.

However, if the two can work together and the transition of the CEO can be planned and implemented in a positive healthy manner, then both the outgoing and incoming executives benefit, as do the staff, the board, and the community. The agency then experiences a transition that actually strengthens the organization, avoiding either a leadership void or an organization crisis. When planning for transitions we should remind ourselves of all the elements that need to be taken into consideration so they will work for all those involved in the process.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.