Constructive, Considerate Executive Transitions – An Example

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The importance of transition planning is a common topic of discussion for non-profits given current and anticipated retirements. A few years ago we offered a set of guidelines for planning the transition which included a pretty impressive toolkit generated by the Federal Reserve of Kansas City.

However it wasn’t until recently that I came across a specific example of an exemplary transition plan that had been been put into action. Barry Hessenius posted an interview with Janet Brown who retired as Executive Director of Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) in December 2017.

In this case, Brown instigated the planning and the board picked up the reins to effect a very constructive transition. While Brown credits GIA’s cash reserves as the most important element of the transition, that was largely because they offered all the employees retention bonuses and relocation support for the planned move from Seattle to New York. What impressed me most about the transition was the decision making process.

In 2015 Brown made the decision to retire at the end of 2017. She met with the three past board chairs and current chair to propose and discuss three different transition plans ranging from simple and cheap to extremely complicated and expensive. They advised her to cut one of the proposals.

One of the things I found extraordinary was that Brown then met with the incoming chair designate and gave her the option to decline the chair position. (my emphasis)

…current chair Bob Booker and I met with chair-designee, Angelique Power, to inform her of my decision and outlined the two scenarios and timelines. We also gave Angelique the opportunity to not continue as chair-designee since she didn’t sign up for a leadership transition when she accepted the position.

The fact they had considered the impact of the retirement decision on the incoming chair and chose to provide her with an opportunity to gracefully withdraw is an illustration of the degree of thought, consideration and emotional intelligence present in this process.

Angelique Power did accept the role and responsibility for the process. As Brown tells it, the board leadership took ownership of transition with alacrity and didn’t allow themselves to get bogged down with discussion. Brown’s retirement was announced in January 2016 and Eddie Torres was named as her successor in July. Brown characterizes this was taking longer than planned, but from what I have read it can often take between 8-12 months to replace a high level executive.

Another impressive aspect of the process was that Angelique Power had arranged for approval of a retirement package in March 2017.  The importance of doing so wasn’t clear until I read the following:

It was approved at that meeting, which removed it from the decisions to be made about the new CEO. When that person was hired, the retirement agreement was in place. This avoided any awkward negotiations or discussions of financial commitments between the new CEO and me.

I don’t recall reading any suggestions along these lines in other articles about succession planning, but the benefits as Brown lays them out make this seem like a prudent course.

In the interview she goes on to talk about how she and Eddie Torres worked together to effect the transition and move to NYC, how things were handled with the staff and GIA membership at the annual conference.

While much about Brown’s transition required huge amounts of cash reserves due to the physical change of location that accompanied it and this wouldn’t necessarily be the situation with transitions at other non-profit organizations, a dedicated transition fund is always important.

Conducting a constructive search to find a good candidate is going to require funding. If possible, providing the outgoing and incoming executives time to work side by side will be more effective than having the new executive orient themselves. However it will require paying salaries and benefits to both during this transition period.

Having the money made the process easy. It is the thoughtful decision making and planning that made the process effective. Poor decision making and commitment could have an adverse impact regardless of how much money they had available.

It is worth reading the interview to get all the details of the transition. If you are only interested in that part, search for the term “Transitions Take Planning” to jump to the start of that conversation.

About Joe Patti

In addition to writing for ArtHacker, I have been writing the blog, Butts in the Seats (buttsseats.com) since 2004.
I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)
I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Across my career I have worked at University of Hawaii-Leeward Community College, University of Central Florida, Asolo Theater, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Appel Farm Arts and Music Center and numerous other places both defunct and funky.

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