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Speaking About Leadership Transition

November 14, 2016

An organization’s vitality and sustainability are the key factors to be considered when thinking about leadership continuity. A common problem in doing so is that this issue of the organization’s best interests is often confused with the best interests of the founder/long-term leader. The organization is often held hostage to the retirement considerations of the chief executive, who may no longer be leading the organization into the future. Not surprisingly, we have seen a number of organizations fall into decline because they are holding on to leaders who have lost their passion and vibrancy.

Frequently, long-term leaders who have not had authentic performance conversations with the board leadership believe that the organization is theirs to oversee - until they get tired of showing up. Accordingly, boards must have regular performance expectations and comprehensive performance reviews with long-term leaders. The performance review should focus on the health and sustainability of the organization and have input from the major stakeholders. Conversations about retirement are challenging, but approaching leadership viability through consistent and vigorous 360 degree performance reviews will ensure that organizations are focused on growth and sustainability.

Take, for example, a large human service organization in Western Pennsylvania. The CEO had been with the organization for his entire career, beginning as a caseworker, and serving for the last 4 decades as the chief executive. The organization relied on government contracts and allowed the senior leadership team unlimited autonomy, with minimal oversight. Opportunities to invest in talent management were discouraged, and the chief executive resisted innovative opportunities to grow program services or community partnerships. For more than a decade, the long-term CEO was not displaying robust leadership and had intimidated his board with tirades. When the chief executive’s dysfunctional behavior became too obvious to ignore, the board had to step up to address the leadership challenge and entertain a merger with another human service provider. The outcome of this hasty merger remains uncertain.

We have seen many boards reluctantly ask the long-term chief executive or founder if they have any retirement plans. When the board chair gets the (unsurprising) response that the chief executive has no immediate plans to retire – the discussion ends there! But Boards should not acquiesce so quickly… It is critical to reframe the conversation to focus on the sustainability of the organization.

 Here are suggestions for initiating the board conversation about leadership transition:

  • Why is this the right time to transition to new leadership?
  • What will ensure the organization’s sustainability in the next 3-5 years?
  • Can the long-term leader envision letting go while still being embedded in the organization; what will be the most difficult aspects of stepping back?
  • A new chief executive will make changes to the operations and might move the organization in new directions; are you ready for this?
  • In planning for the transition, what crucial responsibilities and relationships is the long-term leader prepared to share or hand off? What key relationships should s/he maintain?
  • How does the long-term leader want your organization’s stakeholders to describe their legacy?
  • How can the board best support the long-term leader through transition planning?
  • What will be the biggest challenges for a successful leadership transition?

Priscilla Rosenwald is the Principal and Founder of Leadership Recruiters and a Senior Fellow at the Fels Institute of Government. She is is one of America’s thought leaders addressing change, transition, and talent in the nonprofit sector.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu