Transition Tips for Chief Executives and Boards of Directors

The stronger the relationship between the board and chief executive, the better they work together for a planned transition.

Transition Tips for Chief Executives and Boards of Directors
7 mins read

The strength of a nonprofit is the unique alliance between boards and executives.

I’d love for the board of directors to be my close friends. Who wouldn’t? They are thoughtful, funny, interesting people. Yet in my role, that won’t happen. I am a nonprofit CEO, and these good people are our board of directors—they are not my board of directors.

I share them with our mission, team, community, and donors. Together we have responsibilities that are greater than expanding our circle of friends. But our fulfilling working relationship isn’t by chance—we work at it.

While it’s vital to get the board-chief executive relationships right for day-to-day operations, it’s also a powerful tool for another hot topic in nonprofit management: succession planning for the chief executive.

I believe that the stronger the relationship between the board and chief executive, the better they work together for a planned transition. Some of us were taught that it’s best to get out of the way and let the board do their work to find a replacement, especially for long-term, successful leaders or founders.

I disagree. Even that term, replacement, leads to a flawed approach. We cannot replace people. No one will be the same.

Change is inevitable (and good!)

Leaders are different from one another; organizations are fluid. Both the board and the departing executive need to be open to the possibilities that diverse new leaders offer. By building on the principles of good governance that guided this relationship throughout the years, they can honestly assess what’s next.

When the exiting leader steps aside and respects the board’s autonomy to make the final decision, there will be confidence and excitement about the next chapter.

What can happen when the CEO is not involved in the transition?

When I left a nonprofit that I had successfully led for over 10 years, I subscribed to the get-out-of-the-way principle. Despite my tenure with the organization, we all fell into the misguided notion that I should not participate in the transition. However, four years later, after repeated unsuccessful hires, I got involved.

The organization I loved was struggling mightily with its leadership. Fortunately, they had a team of dedicated, boots-on-the-ground staff members keeping programs focused. Yet, they were weary. They needed a leader. The board was dispirited. Something had to change.

Focus on governance, self-awareness, cultural leadership, and stability

The first thing I focused on when joining the search committee was governance. The committee needs to understand the respective roles of the chief executive and board before the first candidate walks in the door.

The second element we brought into our review process was to explore self-awareness of competency, including humility about what someone doesn’t know.  A candidate who knows what they do not know is far more likely to succeed than one oblivious to the learning curve ahead. Someone who is self-aware will be amenable to supervision and mentoring.

Once we were satisfied a candidate could learn programmatic/technical skills, our third focus was on leadership qualities and culture alignment. That meant ascertaining the nimbleness of a leader, their authenticity in building and sustaining relationships, their appetite for risk, and conversely their discipline to stay the course when needed. Unlike the technical skills that can be learned, these traits are part of a candidate at their core.

Finally, we tied the analysis together by assessing a candidate’s rock-steadiness. We asked the tough questions: Do they have their two feet firmly planted on the ground? Can they handle the operational challenges? Can they balance the chef, cook, and bottle-washer roles of a chief executive?

Sometimes things don’t go as planned.

The organization was successful with the first hire, bringing on a wonderful director who had a steady hand at the helm and a good heart to balance it out. Due to family illness, she had to step down sooner than expected.

So, the organization had to go back to the drawing board. The search committee followed the same list of priorities. They found another successor who checked all the boxes and then some.

What happens when things start to fall apart?

As we learned in the pandemic of 2020, unimaginable societal suffering and the resulting ever-changing operational demands of a nonprofit call for ‘all hands-on deck,’ yet with heightened sensitivity to unique roles of board and chief executive.

That’s when the value of good governance, seeking and offering guidance, and exceptional communication cannot be underestimated. The reliance on those principles brings about confident, healthy, and very gratifying partnerships.

Building a strong board takes work and resources.

I’ve found that BoardSource has great tools for a prospective, new, or seasoned board director and chief executives. Using these tools keeps my organization focused from the start. They set the stage for well-informed directors and a shared language between the chief executive and board directors.

You’ll find a few of my favorites below.

Board recruitment:

Board orientation:

Finally, there is a Ted Talk that I show all new directors during orientation: Modern nonprofit board governance — passion is not enough! | Chris Grundner | TEDxWilmington

Remember—create partnerships for smooth transitions.

Making fundamental governance principles the shared context with which to guide boards and chief executives creates partnerships—from day-to-day operations and through transitions. Intentionally applying these principles gives each the right tools with which to face the successes or challenges or changes.

The strength of a nonprofit organization is this unique, educated alliance. It is a commitment infused with wisdom, trust, and grace. And trust me, that works.

In case you missed it…

Board Assessments with Sample Management Questions

About the Author

Siobhan Greene

Siobhan Greene began serving as President/CEO for Hospice Giving Foundation in August 2013. She specializes in nonprofit executive and financial management, board governance, marketing, and fundraising. Dedicated to the movement to improve quality at end of life, Siobhan is an active member of the Serious Illness Funders Collaborative, a national collective examining the system of end-of-life care, and she facilitates local professional collaboratives addressing needs in Monterey County. Her past professional experience includes working with children, mental health services, and at-risk community groups. Before joining HG Foundation, Siobhan was Executive Director of CASA of Monterey County for 11 years and currently serves on CASA’s Board of Directors. Siobhan began her career working in in-patient psychiatric services in the Bay Area prior to moving the Monterey Peninsula. Siobhan was President of the Rotary Club of Carmel-by-the-Sea (2016) and is past-commissioner for Monterey County’s Juvenile Justice Commission having been chair in 2012. Siobhan served on California CASA Board of Directors focusing on statewide system improvement for children in foster care; is past-chair of and continues to be active with the Monterey Bay Association of Fundraising Professionals; and has served on AFP’s National Philanthropy Day local organizing committee for over 10 years.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

3 thoughts on “Transition Tips for Chief Executives and Boards of Directors

  1. I think it’s a bad sign when the outgoing Executive Director participates in the hiring of a successor. It’s as if the Board is saying it doesn’t want to lose its current Exec so it seeks that person’s “OK” for the new hire. “Get-out-of-the-way” is a good principle. You are no longer in charge and it is not your organization, no matter how successful you’ve been and how strong your emotions for the group. Let them make the decision without you. It’s their organization, not yours.

  2. L. Oliphant,
    I think it is very difficult for a CEO to just get out of the way. It’s not their personality for sure. It especially is difficult when the CEO birthed the organization. I plan to step down at the end of the year and will communicate that to the entire board six monthsprior to departure. I want to continue the work I started and will finish by year end. In the meantime, it gives me an opportunity to look at who within the organization is capable and willing to accept the responsibility. Do I need the new CEO to be a reflection of me? No. The organization is changing and new ideas are emerging. Finding that new leader won’t be another me or the organization is doomed to fail and failure is not an option. If they are interested, it could be important for them to know what they need and how to find it.

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