Don’t let the door hit you on the way out

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 18th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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goodbye imagesWhenever I talk about executive director succession planning, one of the things that I always stress is the importance of the outgoing executive director to do just that:  go out.  Leave the organization.  And this is regardless of the individual (founder, long-serving, short-serving) and the reasons for the departure.  Naturally, if the experience with the exiting executive has been a good one, then you want that departure heralded with the proper fanfare.

There is one exception to this hard and fast rule and it only involves those who aren’t a departing founder:  if the incoming executive director wants her/his predecessor around.  But this is the new executive director’s call, not the board’s.

One of the key pieces of a succession plan that a large percentage of people leave out (and that is a large percentage of the very small percentage of organizations that actually have any written plan), is the transition strategy.  This is the part of the plan that scopes out how the new person will be acculturated, integrated with staff and board, introduced to stakeholders, etc.

When organizations do have that transition strategy as part of the larger succession plan, one of the chief mistakes I see is the imposing of an overlap of the old and the new—for days, sometimes weeks.  Again:  this should be the incoming executive’s choice, not the board’s decision.  Rather, the board’s decision should be to contract with the outgoing executive for an agreed upon number of consulting hours should the new executive desire that contact.

Many new executive directors want to get into an organization, feel their own way, start to get a little acclimated and then, when they know the right questions to ask, meet with the former executive once, twice, regularly once a month for six months.  Some want no contact, feel they can learn all that they need from the files, the staff, the board and think it is a new day, a new framework, let’s move forward, not look back.

There is no right or wrong, assuming, of course, that the search and selection process has been a good and thorough one.    But a new executive must be given the room to do things her/his way—not the way the board wants it.  That’s just not the board’s role.  And then, albeit under very rare circumstances, the new executive may want the former executive around in a clearly defined role to aid him/her and or the organization in a very specific capacity.  But again, it is the new executive’s call, and not an option that a board should even hint at, let alone suggest.

The reasons for this necessary (unless otherwise invited) departure should be obvious, but clearly are not, as the situation where an outgoing executive (ma)lingers around the organization long after her/his replacement has been brought on is all too common.  It is difficult, if nigh impossible, to put your own imprimatur on a place when the former leader is there; it is impossible to build the necessary relationship with the board and staff and gain their trust when the former executive is there and the heads are swiveling in her/his direction.  There are reasons, whatever they may be, that the decision was made to turn a current leader into a former leader; all of our actions must support that decision.

I have a different stance when it comes to board members:  with one very large exception, it can work for a board president who is stepping down from that leadership position to stay on the board afterwards and serve out whatever might remain of his/her term, provided, of course, that the individual is not an interfering, meddlesome, all-controlling person.

My one large exception?  Founding board members.  Regardless of the roles they have played on the board, when their initial series of terms (whatever the bylaws allow in regarding the number of successive terms), they must go, never to come back!  Seriously.  Reminiscing can be nice; but to keep pointing to the past and a set of goals that no longer applies and circumstances that have long since disappeared, only harms an organization that is seeking to go forward.

Just like a parent who may need to adjust the future s/he designed for a child as that child takes control of his/her own life, naturally influenced by the values the parent taught, the experiences provided, the conversations had, as well as the influences of the world around, the board must adjust as well.  But with a founder board member present who keeps waving the banner of the past, the future is hard to realize.

The past does matter, as there is much to learn there.  But the people who represent the past and whose presence always turns us around to the past instead of helping steer toward the future are the danger to an organization. They must go.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.