Why Executive Directors Need L&D to Execute a Smooth Succession

Learn about what makes a good talent management strategy and how investing in learning and development helps organizations fill their leadership pipeline.

Why Executive Directors Need L&D to Execute a Smooth Succession
12 mins read

In the nonprofit world, leadership is everything.

According to an analysis by Korn Ferry, 174 nonprofit and government sector CEOs left their posts in the first six months of 2022, a 39% jump from the same period in 2021. With the nonprofit sector witnessing a rise in leadership exits, the key is to start planning for the inevitable to prepare your organization for the future with a competent successor at its helm.

Of course, the search for a new Executive Director (ED) or CEO can often be a dizzying experience for everyone involved—staff, board, even volunteers. It can also be an awkward conversation for the sitting CEO to get comfortable with. The good news is that you can eliminate most, if not all, of the awkwardness and confusion with sound planning and proper implementation.

After all, you’ve likely spent many years devoted to realizing your organization’s mission. You can probably agree that you’d feel better off leaving knowing that you’ve established processes and systems for your departure.

In this article I will review what makes a good talent management strategy, how to develop your staff for leadership roles, and why learning and development (L&D) is key to a successful leadership pipeline.

Strategizing Talent Management

 In general, companies with effective talent management strategies are more adaptable to change, more productive, more innovative, and better able to retain their talent. Across the board, effective talent management strategies include recruitment, performance, career development, and L&D. In my experience, however, nonprofits often decide on a new hire and then consider filling only that role. Little attention is paid to what talent is needed to achieve future business goals.

Instead, you might approach recruitment from a more holistic standpoint. You should, of course, consider your talent needs as well as the requisite skills and abilities necessary to lead the organization successfully. However, you should also ask yourself what behaviors embody your organization’s values, starting your recruitment with those behaviors in mind.

For nonprofits, hiring isn’t just about filling one current opening; it’s about building a team of professionals who can lead and take accountability for the results produced by your organization. Strategy requires you to think long-term to help cultivate and retain talented people.

Combating the Talent Gap through Development

Today, technical skills aren’t good enough. People need what have long been referred to as “soft skills.” These include collaboration, communication, time management, critical thinking, and managerial skills, to name a few. According to a white paper by the Association for Talent Development, 83% of organizations report having a skills gap, and “almost three-quarters say that the skills gap affects their organization’s service delivery, customers, or future growth.”  When contemplating who is next in line, these numbers cause concern. However, this data also means you should consider what resources and opportunities your organization offers to close these critical skill gaps as well as the measurement necessary to track progress in these areas.

Imagine that you are a new hire. As you take a position in your new organization, they provide the right training in the right way, specifically for how you learn best. This sends a message to you that the organization and its leadership takes talent seriously—and they (and you) should! Having a baseline on a team’s current skills as well as the means to track their performance and growth helps to ensure the team is growing with the organization.

To these ends, I’ve introduced psychometric or job profile assessments (Currently, I’ve been using the 5 Voices Assessment for in-house staff profiles as well as Big 5 with clients outside of my current role) as part of the onboarding process at my nonprofit, which also help new hires hit the ground running in their first few months on the job.

These assessments allow me to personalize how I onboard talent so that I can tailor my on-the-job training to the individual’s needs and style. In addition, they also provide valuable information about how an individual views and interacts with the world, which further helps me connect with them and, in turn, deepens their bond to our organization.

L&D and the Leadership Pipeline

The pandemic has prompted many leaders to reexamine their organization’s values and workforce models, with talented employees championing for greater flexibility and purpose in their work. As such, it makes good business sense to invest in your talents’ learning and development to provide them with the skills they need to excel in both their current and future organizational roles. By upskilling talent and connecting L&D to their organizations’ overall talent management strategies, EDs can expand their impact.

Much like tailoring your onboarding process, L&D signifies that you value continuous learning as well as investing in your talented employees’ personal and professional development. L&D also helps you identify which individuals are eager and ready to step into new roles, helping you fill your leadership pipeline. In order to achieve these goals, you might consider building internal development programs—such as coaching, mentoring, or leadership programs—that help talent learn the skills that your organization needs to accomplish its mission objectives.

But the benefits of L&D for your organization do not stop at helping to create talent. Rather, investment in L&D makes sure that your organization retains that talent as well. Data provided by the Saratoga Institute indicates that “at least 9% and possibly as much as 32% of an organization’s voluntary turnover can be prevented through better leadership skills.”

In an analysis of similar data, Leigh Branham, an authority on employee retention, identified that “trust, hope, worth, and competence are at the core of most voluntary separations.” It seems that when employees cannot fulfill their needs in these critical areas, they start looking elsewhere, meaning that your organization could lose valuable, talented people as well as their institutional knowledge.

And far from reducing productivity, studies indicate that L&D might actually lead employees to be more productive in their roles as well. For example, a study involving 300 managers and 1,200 direct reports of financial service companies found a 5 to 12% increase in productivity among employees of managers who attended development training and then immediately began to apply the new skills learned.

With numbers like these, it is easy to see how employee retention, productivity, performance, decision-making, and innovation are direct consequences of successful employee L&D.

Creating Training at Small and Mid-sized Nonprofits

While small and mid-sized nonprofits may have limited resources and staff, there are several efficient and cost-effective ways they can incorporate L&D for their staff and volunteers. Here are four specific ideas:

  1. Online learning: Nonprofits can use online platforms such as Udemy or LinkedIn Learning to provide learning courses to their staff and volunteers. These kinds of platforms offer a wide range of courses on various topics, and many of them are free or low-cost.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning: Encourage your staff and volunteers to share their knowledge and expertise with one another through peer-to-peer learning sessions. This can be done through lunch and learns, group discussions, mentoring programs, or shadowing.
  3. E-learning modules: Create e-learning modules on specific topics related to the nonprofit’s mission or organizational goals. These modules can be created using various free or low-cost e-learning authoring tools.
  4. Guest speakers: Invite experts in the field to give presentations, workshops, or facilitate programs on topics related to the nonprofit’s mission or organizational goals. This can be done in-person or virtually.

Overall, it’s important for nonprofits to identify their learning and development needs and prioritize their resources to provide the most effective training for their staff and volunteers.

Let’s Talk Hypotheticals

Imagine two organizations: one implements a continuous L&D employee strategy, and the other does not. In both organizations, the sitting ED has announced her retirement.

In the first organization, there isn’t the typical chaotic frenzy triggered by the announcement. Instead, the sitting ED presents her board with a vetted list of internal candidates who have undergone proper leadership development training. The board is pleased that much of the work is done, and they spend their last two board meetings drilling down on which well-qualified candidates are the best for the position.

Within six months, they identify their new ED from the internal list and begin the transition process. The sitting ED then spends her days transferring institutional knowledge, setting up the new ED for success. The staff and board are supportive because the process has been transparent and smooth from start to finish.

Unfortunately for the second organization, the announcement instead raises uncertainty as the ED failed to put the appropriate processes and systems in place prior to her retirement. With the board in a deadlock over governance, dissension ensues with everyone in the organization becoming embroiled in the dramatic search for a new ED.

People form perhaps antipodal allegiances, and the sitting ED is overwhelmed with managing the clashes between the board and dealing with staff disengagement. The uncertainty and drama then cause some staff to consider switching jobs (a few of whom do end up leaving). At all points, focus is drawn away from the mission of the organization, most likely resulting in the failure to deliver services (and even potential loss of funds).

Eventually, this organization’s board might have to hire an executive search firm, whose candidates might be completely unaware of the breakdown in organizational culture. Despite being sharp and eager to lead, any new ED would probably be stressed once they learn how fractured the culture of the organization is, and they might even begin to regret taking their job.

While this second hypothetical situation might seem apocalyptic, it is not difficult to see how a lack of planning on the part of the ED can have drastic consequences, even with the best intentions (note how no one at the second organization is trying to make things difficult; the situation just snowballs). And so it would seem that strategically investing in talent garners only a potential upside. In fact, it is necessary for the longevity of your organization.

Final Thoughts

Providing employees with the skills, tools, and support they need to perform at their best is the key to crafting a high-performance work environment. In this environment, you will attract the best, retain them, and fill your pipeline with capable and competent leaders, making your transition out of the organization a smooth one for all involved.

At the end of the day, your board and staff will thank you for it. After all, you’re a mission-driven leader, and it’s your job to see your organization is in the best possible position to advance that mission.

About the Author

Faswilla Sampson is Chief Operating Officer of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, an organization that represents scientists, patients, providers, and payers to promote the understanding and adoption of personalized medicine. She brings more than 15 years of leadership, executive coaching, and strategic planning expertise working with healthcare associations in the Washington D.C. area. Faswilla’s mission is to develop leaders and organizations to their full potential. She believes that for any organization to be truly impactful in the 21st century, organizations must immediately begin working to develop leaders at every level. She enjoys speaking and presenting on a variety of business topics from leadership to workforce planning to talent management. Faswilla holds a BA from University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

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.

2 thoughts on “Why Executive Directors Need L&D to Execute a Smooth Succession

  1. Thanks to Ms Sampson for sharing. Great advice. Even if your organization is too small or currently overburdened to use all the suggestions immediately, gradually incorporate them into standard operating practices.

  2. “trust, hope, worth, and competence are at the core of most voluntary separations.” Turnover does come down to that, as well as connection, inclusion and for NP orgs with young professionals development opportunities must be front & center, you must support it, clarify it and see it in action- results starting with one employee and moves to the rest. Make sure everyone has a clear role connected to the team and mission, both internal and external colleagues who support the teams and mission.

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