You sit on the board of an arts organization and a situation arises where the executive director will be departing. Should the board leave the position vacant, appoint a board member or employee as interim executive or perhaps hire a professional interim executive?
There are a good number of dynamics that result from the departure of an executive and the decisions that follow. Some may be perceived in advance, others may only become apparent later as the leadership transition period continues.
There are a number of places you will find advice about engaging in the process of searching for a new executive, but few really explore the impact of the change on the organization’s constituents and provide guidance about how to address those situations.
In some of their newsletters, the executive search firm Arts Consulting Group (ACG) discuss the loss of momentum that occurs if an executive stays on during a search, a board member/employee steps up as interim director, or if the position remains unfilled. They suggest bringing on a professional interim executive.
ACG’s vested interest in providing executive search services doesn’t necessarily disqualify their view. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (KC Fed) provides an excellent Nonprofit Executive Succession-Planning Toolkit that often echos and complements the content of ACG’s newsletters.
For example, the KC Fed notes that during a planned transition, the current executive, as well as board and staff, can often sabotage the process and the success of the person who inherits the position. They provide a template for planned departures which advocates for clearly defining what role, if any, the departing executive might have in the organization. There is also a self reflection questionnaire for the departing executive to help them examine their motivations.
Based on the fact that it typically takes between 8 to 12 months to replace a top executive. ACG created a good resource for board members about how to guide the remaining employees through the uncertain transition. This is an important aspect of the process. According to their study, “one-fifth of total respondents saw higher than normal staff turnover during a leadership void.”
In addition to being anxious about the future of the organization and to whom they should turn for direction, ACG notes that employees are often faced with requests from board members and inquiries about the state of things from the press, public and funders.
“How should I respond when a board member tells me what to do?” During a transition, board members may check-in with staff, share ideas and make suggestions, all for the good of the organization. This can be helpful, but often creates a challenge for employees unless board members are assigned specific roles. Typically, saying “no” to a board member is not an option. Thus without a leader, these changing boundaries may cause confusion.
“How do I respond when someone asks me what’s going on?” Not knowing what to say is a terrible feeling for employees, even though they may have strong personal opinions. Attending an event or even answering a phone generates negative anticipation. Needless to say, the wrong response or tone can be disastrous.
Both the KC Fed & ACG makes suggestions about how to mitigate these issues, some of which include having clear policies, channels of communication and a single person through which direction and updates come at predictable intervals. They also advise engaging staff in the search process. Again, the KC Fed has excellent guidelines and a template for emergency succession without a plan in place.
In a recent article, ACG discusses the role of the search committee, including its composition and responsibilities. The emphasize the increasingly necessary, but perhaps touchy subject of full and clear disclosure of information.
The ethical disclosure of an organization’s challenges, financial position, structure, and stakeholder perspectives is critical. Candidates expect transparency and distrust organizations with inconsistencies, dated financial information, and hidden agendas. Frank discussions regarding strengths, difficulties, and opportunities offer all parties open and honest perspectives on the potential match between candidate, position, and organization.
While the initial premise of this post was that a situation arose where you needed to either transition and replace an executive departing in the next few weeks or months, or are faced with an emergency occurred where there was little choice in the matter, the ideal approach is to have a succession plan in place before the word is even mentioned.
The KC Fed, seeking to be a comprehensive guide provides guidance on creating such a plan, cultivating current staff to potentially assume the role and warns about the impediments to creating and implementing such a plan.