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Succession Planning

Creating a Winning Strategy

 Hiring The Right Executive Director &
Navigating The Transition

The turbulence of transition is a reality throughout the non-profit sector. It potentially puts the organization at risk.

In the case of your organization, if the shock of transition has not yet been managed take a moment and call me immediately.  I’ll give you a quick review of how to begin.

If your organization has already announced that a change is eminent, you have diffused the shock of the upcoming transition and you have begun the management of that change then the planning begins here.

How you approach the hiring of a new Executive Director will set the pace for your future.  This outline is an educational tool.  It is a roadmap and not intended to be utilized as a final plan.

Notification of all affected parties and positive press. Special handling of key individuals, stakeholders, committees, etc.

The Goal: Universal acceptance and support for the decision.

Did your organization have an experienced Executive Director?

Is your non-profit a seasoned organization?

Will your new Executive Director be able to meet with the transitioning incumbent or is this part of a hostile transition?

The stressors of a new and different person and new position, unlike the new directors last assignment will include building immediate credibility within a new community of colleagues, clients, community leaders, networks, businesses, internal committees, the community at large and more.

In a decisive study conducted by the Center For Creative Leadership in 1998 it was found that 40% of transitioning executives failed in the first 18 months. In a more recent study, seven reasons were given for these failures by a noted CEO:

Poor organizational strategy and fuzzy objectives prior to arriving
No mesh between the talents of the CEO and strengths of the organization  Withholding authority required to do the job
Slow learning of the culture of the organization and the expectations of key 
Failure to grasp the operating environment of the organization
Trying to do too much for too many on her/his own
Failure to help the organization see what needs to happen

The first 90 days is many times referred to as the “onboarding” period. In the book, The Business Bible of Onboarding, author Michael Watkins summarized the reasons for failure as “a pernicious (destructive) interaction between the situation, with its opportunities and pitfalls, and the individual, with his or her strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Following are a series of components to successfully transition out the current Executive Director and recruit a new leader consistent with the views of governance from a Board, Staff, Network, Agency and Community perspective:

(There will be other components as we personalize your tailored Transition Plan)

Tailored Design

Each organization is unique. We tailor the transition to suit the distinctive culture, operational structure, priorities, financial goals and personality of your organization. 

Rituals and Legends

How the outgoing Executive Director is treated in the remaining time is a key element in preparing for new leadership. This will be helpful with the completion of the current Executive’s duties, paving a positive path for the new recruit. 

Ongoing Communication with the Community, Staff and Others

The announcement and transition must be handled with grace, even under the most dire circumstances. 

Initial Recruitment

The wording and placement of the notice of a position opening will aid in starting the process of recruiting a new leader. One Board person will need to head up this component. Collecting, organizing, ranking and communicating with candidates and others will be critical. The recruitment, interview and selection process must be transparent and balanced. 

Search Committee
The introduction of a Search Committee will aid the Board in their final decision making task.
Staff Input

Candidates must meet with key staff and the Chair of the Board Search Committee. In numerous organizations, key staff and other staff may apply for the position.  This needs to handled appropriately. 

Candidate Assignments

Prior to final selection the finalists should be asked to prepare select materials and a presentation on the organizations Mission, Vision and beyond. This presentation will be made to the full Board and others as identified. 

Interviewing, Tabulation and Selection

Final selection rests with the full Board. However, the above referenced team approach will be helpful and create a chain of credibility throughout the process. The use of a tailored process, set questions, and rating grids and will avoid issues of discriminatory practices and allow for a smooth selection process. 

Orientation Stage

The design and orchestration of the orientation process will be a bell weather of early success. Starting with the Board and defining key groups, key stakeholders, key vendors, formal and informal relations and more will be a critical element.  

    Briefing Book

    This useful technique is to develop a Briefing Book.
    This is a playbook of what you do, when and how you do it.
    Includes your strengths, vulnerabilities and challenges.

     Post-Hire Interviews

     Offering the incoming Executive Director assistance with his/her initial meetings
     will create a Board bond and immediate support.

 Initial Communication Plan

The Board works with the new leader to develop and publish a communications plan for the first 60 to 90 days. This will help everyone know what to expect and reduce the trauma of introducing a new leader. 

History and Culture

After all else is done it is still useful to have the new leader meet with a select group of individuals to review the history and culture of your organization. This sets the stage for a better understanding of how the organization arrived at the point where you are and aids the new Executive Director in planning for the future.  

Personal Action Plan

Require that the incoming Executive Director produce an organizational assessment and proposed action plan of the priorities to be tackled. 

This should typically come to the Board between 3-6 months and earlier if your organization is in a crisis mode. This is a key or primary vehicle between the Board and the Executive Director. 


This outline is only the beginning.  The ability to modify it to the express needs of your organization and to flesh it out and properly execute the plan is the critical difference between success and failure.

I offer this outline to explain how I approach this subject.  In no way is it complete enough to venture off and execute a recruitment project. I suggest we talk and discuss your needs before you try to execute a plan based solely on the above. 

In any event, I wish you the best in your efforts, and if this outline helps then I have succeeded in beginning the process you will need to follow.  

David Wandel is an Organizational Development Consultant in Madison, Wisconsin. 
David has consulted and conducted programs, seminars and workshops for, for-profit and non-profit organizations for over twenty years. 

Email David at  wancomp@aol.com

Call David at 608-238-6850, 877-240-4068 or on his mobile at 608-345-6337.