Executive Transition: Horror Story or Opportunity?

One cannot spend time in the Community Benefit* Sector without hearing horror stories of Executive Transitions gone bad. Given the huge turnover occurring as founders and long-time CEOs retire, this is a serious Stop Sign on the road to changing our world!

(To see other Stop Signs along the Road to Changing the World, just click here.)

Stop Sign: Executive Transition

First, let’s be clear: When it comes to hiring horror stories, leaders in Community Benefit Organizations are not alone. Just ask the business people on your board about their hiring batting average in their “real” lives. You will find some good stories, mixed in with a litany of horror stories.

Dimitri and I have done enough of this work to know it can create great results. We have facilitated transitions that brought peace of mind AND joy to all involved.

So why do so many Executive Transitions go wrong? And why do board members not see that the train is about to hit them, when everyone else around them, especially the staff, sees it plain as day?

Here is some of what we realize is at the heart of all the horror stories:

1) Boards see Executive Transition FIRST as a problem to be solved, and only then as an opportunity for creating something positive.

2) Board members know hiring and firing is their domain. And they feel fortunate that they have experience in hiring from their “real lives.”

3) The result of #1 & #2, though, is that board members close ranks rather than opening up and sharing ideas. They close ranks because they are in charge and it’s their job, and their job alone, to hire. They close ranks because they are the experts at hiring, as they do it all the time in their “real” lives. And they close ranks because problem-solving tends to encourage the closing of ranks.

4) Unfortunately, while board members may think they know how to hire, most do not know how to do it well, given their own hiring horror stories from those “real lives.” And so, the result of their closing ranks is to exclude from the discussion the very people who might warn them that the train is headed right for them.

So what to do? In an article we published last week at Help 4 NonProfits, I provide some detailed how-to steps. But here is the abridged version (ok, very abridged!):

1) Yes, boards are in charge of the hiring process. But FIRST they are in charge of something more important – they are the keepers of the organization’s vision and values, its core purpose. Sadly, boards both large and small see vision and values as extra, as fluff. And that is the first step in bad hiring.

The first step in GOOD hiring, therefore, is to understand that the board is the keeper of the organization’s purpose, and to then translate that purpose into everything the board does – including hiring.

2) Have a succession plan, and keep it updated, all the time. Making a succession plan only when it’s too late is – well – too late!

3) Hire for the future, not to solve today’s problems. Again, this comes back to vision and values. Your CEO is not about what’s wrong with today – he or she is about what’s possible for tomorrow.

4) And that leads to the most critical step: View Executive Transition as a celebration of what is possible. Because change is only problem-solving if that is how you see it.

Executive Transition can create incredible strength in an organization. When I finished writing the story at the end of the article at our website, I emailed the ED in that story, telling her that my writing had caused me to reflect on what an extraordinary job she is doing, and how blessed the organization is to have her there. I could tell from our email exchange that both of us were welling up with tears – tears for how perfect the fit is, and for the amazing things that organization is accomplishing.

That is what is possible. But it is only possible when we stop seeing Executive Transition as a problem to be solved, and we start celebrating the future the organization has the opportunity to create for the community.

* Curious about our use of the term “Community Benefit Sector?” Click here to learn more.

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