Gearing Up and (Teaming Up) for a Leadership Transition

Some of the hardest moments we face as nonprofit professionals happen during leadership transitions. That's why it's so great that Susan Poglinco and Priscilla Rosenwald took the time to very honestly chronicle for Blue Avocado the challenges -- both expected and unanticipated -- they ran into during one such transition at a charter school in the northeast. It's a fresh reminder for me that nothing is ever as neat as it looks on the surface.

Leadership transitions and organizational change can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Striking a balance between maintaining areas of success and achievement and the promise of a new direction for a school can be delicate. Change in leadership is, indeed, a painful thought. But avoiding or postponing leadership change could put the school in long-term jeopardy. What is most important is that the facts are faced and parameters put in place to ensure the school will continue to thrive and stand on its own without the current leadership; the school's vitality and sustainability are the key factors to be considered.

When a long-term leader has been in their role for a decade or more, the board often defers to them for all organizational information, decisions and direction. Frequently, long-term leaders who have not had authentic performance conversations with the board leadership believe that the organization is theirs to oversee -- until they get tired of showing up. Then the organization is held hostage to the retirement considerations of the chief executive, who may no longer be leading the school into the future. Boards are frequently remiss in not having regular performance expectations and comprehensive performance reviews with long-term school leaders, which would focus on the health and sustainability of the school, and have input from the major stakeholders, including the senior leadership team.

In this case, the charter school board understood the need for professional guidance and engaged an executive search firm, Leadership Recruiters. Without any prior leadership continuity planning, the leadership transition at the charter school required collaboration with the board leadership and the organization's senior leadership in a transparent and inclusive way. Effective planning and processes had to be put in place to redirect and ensure an effective transition to new leadership.

At each step along the way, there were hints at what lay beneath in the transition process.

Tip-Off #1: The prospect of change was uniformly welcomed among teachers and other school staff.

In conjunction with Leadership Recruiters, we worried that change management might be an initial challenge as we began an organizational assessment. We rolled out a leadership inventory questionnaire/planning tool and met with staff at the school to create a position description reflective of the demanding CEO role. But one thing was immediately clear -- many staff expressed a readiness for a change of leadership and welcomed the change.

At the time of the search, the school's CEO had been in the role for close to a decade. He was looking forward to a new professional chapter in his life, and had been working toward that chapter for a number of years while still in his CEO role. The last two years at the school had been increasingly difficult, and the CEO was admittedly tired.

The CEO enjoyed a collegial relationship with the immediate-past Board Chair. While a few tricky issues came up during her two-year term, she united the nine-person board and fostered a productive working relationship with both board members and the CEO -- the status quo was maintained and the school was getting by on the surface. The board was comprised of committed members with good intentions, but board members were in need of strategic direction/capacity building to prepare them for the search and the imminent organizational transition.

Tip-Off #2: While the board had hunches that internal systems were not fully realized, the new Board Chair quickly confirmed that the state of affairs was worse than expected.

The CEO publicly announced he was departing soon after the new Board Chair started her term. The new Board Chair was action-focused and charged with leading the search and the board through a complicated year. She started asking the kinds of questions that no one had ever asked of past board leadership or the CEO. A methodical audit of all aspects of the school revealed that there were inconsistent policies and procedures and less documentation than expected across critical aspects of the school.

Tip-Off #3: Leadership Team members had latitude to make decisions out of benign neglect.

The CEO presided over an 8-person Leadership Team in what might be called a "servant-leader" model -- defining his devotion to the school as "a calling." Cloaked in humanity and service, the CEO inarguably had good intentions. Yet the strategic and operational execution of a coherent and consistent academic agenda was often clouded by two persistent and inescapable realities within the school -- school climate/student discipline and a challenging financial outlook. At the helm of the Leadership Team, the CEO was overwhelmed. He neither promoted excellence nor tolerated dissent among Leadership Team members. Leadership team members had decision-making power not because they earned it or had proven they could handle it, but because the CEO was consumed with the school's financial challenges above all else.

Tip-Off #4 : The CEO and Leadership Team were cloistered from the rest of the school staff.

Leadership team decisions were communicated poorly with little rationale or transparency, or sometimes not at all. All the staff lamented the lack of transparency. In fact, most school staff characterized communications from the administration as inconsistent or non-existent.

Across the school, there were few accountability systems -- for teachers, Leadership Team members, students or the CEO.

Tip-Off #5: Academic performance, especially among a core of failing students, improved little.

Instructional quality varied from teacher to teacher, and there were no systems in place to rectify that variation. Teacher observations were performed by the Principal.

Chief among staff complaints was the lack of enforcement of a code of conduct and students not being held accountable for bad behavior. This was viewed as the province of the Dean of Students and the Principal, not a shared responsibility across Leadership Team members and all school staff.

Disciplinary issues continued to rise among students in both numbers and severity, escalating into a series of events foreshadowed by all the tip-offs to this point. These events, which included a key leadership team member taking an abrupt leave of absence, were not communicated to the board until after the fact.

The CEO lost good will of most board members after this.

Tip-Off #6: It was revealed that in a decade of service, the CEO had no record of written performance reviews by the board.

The executive committee reported to review the CEO annually, but there was no paper trail, or stated performance objectives.

Tip-Off #7: The Board Chair intervened in basic operations of school out of necessity, not choice.

In preparing to mount a national search for a new CEO, the executive search leader instructed the Board Chair that she needed an organizational chart that reflected the Leadership Team structure -- potential candidates would ask for that as they progressed through the candidacy pipeline. In addition, the Board Chair needed to track down job descriptions for all eight Leadership Team members. She soon discovered that there was no organizational chart, no job descriptions for Leadership Team Members and no documented formal review processes -- in short no performance evaluation system.

Operational failings were starting to impact the search process. The Board Chair had to act quickly and outsource a short turnaround project with an HR consultant to get the necessary documents -- so the search could proceed and provide accurate organizational information about the school.

Tip-Off #8: The internal COO had no responsibility for the financial systems.

The set up at the school had the CEO working with a charter school subcontractor who acted as Business and Finance Manager, resulting in an over-emphasis on dire financials at the risk of all other aspects of school performance or approaches to revenue enhancement.

The alliance formed between the CEO and the Business Manager mutually reinforced the intractable nature of the financial challenges the school faced, and took the emphasis away from the academic and instructional aspects of the school, where the school was under-performing. Everyone was complicit in this, and entreaties to move beyond this discussion by the Board Chair were met with hostility from both the CEO and the Business Manager. The outgoing CEO was more aligned with a subcontractor than with the Board Chair or the board, and as a result, all other aspects of the school suffered.

The Final Outcome of the Search Process

The search consultant and Board Chair led an engaged search committee, with representation from the faculty. Information gathered from the organizational assessment, and additional HR and financial due diligence, guided the leadership profile for the next CEO, as well as concurrent planning for system changes at the school, led by the Board Chair. During the transition, the outgoing CEO was encouraged to prepare for the knowledge transfer to his successor, and was subsequently honored at public events celebrating his tenure once the new hire was announced. The new CEO and Board Chair have engaged during the on-boarding process to prepare the school for change -- leading to viability and sustainability.

Key Takeaways

  • No amount of planning can prepare the Search Chair for "What Lies Beneath" over the course of the search process

Unforeseen challenges emerge during a search that will require decisive action and an independent thinker able to see beyond competing agendas. A capable executive search professional can act as a compass and ally, and coming from the outside they will see dynamics that may escape you.

  • Strong leadership is best shared across all board members during a critical transition

The Search Chair can lead the process, but she or he should be backed up by search committee members and board members in addressing the unforeseen challenges that may come up during the search process. A Search Chair aims to run a successful search. If pre-existing organizational circumstances put that at risk, it should be all hands on deck among board members.

  • Money is always an issue, it is never the ONLY issue

Demystify school finances -- strike a balance between engagement and overemphasis. Board composition should deliberately include at least one or two board members with a background in school finance or accounting. The CEO should be engaged in the finances of the school, but not to the detriment of all the other pieces of the puzzle. The academic mission of the school and the instructional program are key to attracting additional funder or donor dollars and corporate support.

  • Incoming leaders will inherit "legacy challenges" with both school staff and the board

Legacy challenges like persistent academic failure among students and lower student enrollment numbers are two interconnected areas the new CEO has had to contend with immediately. Board composition analysis identified a need for two or three new board members with legal, HR or financial expertise.

Susan M. Poglinco, PhD and Priscilla Rosenwald, MS, worked together for more than a year to bring new leadership to a 600-student charter school in the northeast. Rosenwald is the founder and principal of Leadership Recruiters. Poglinco was the Board Chair.

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