We talk a lot about succession planning as a best practice for nonprofits. But what happens when the head of the organization leaves suddenly and you don't have a plan in place?
It is the role of the board to hire the executive director, but because it is a task that (hopefully) happens infrequently, many are not prepared and do not know the critical steps involved. Here are four immediate considerations for boards dealing with this type of leadership transition:
First Things First: This is not the time to act rashly. Sometimes a warm body, any warm body, seems better than nothing. This is not one of those times. It is critical that you take the time to reflect on key internal and external factors for your organization, such as: strategic direction, strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats, vision and values. You will then understand what skills and behavioral assets the ED needs to keep your organization on track (or put it on the right track, if that is the case).
Secondly: You are not alone. There are many organizations that will guide nonprofits through emergency management transitions. Executive Service Corps is one such organization. A fellow nonprofit, they train retired executives to assist nonprofits through these types of situations (for a very reasonable fee). There are also many other nonprofit consultants in the Chicago region who specialize in staff transition.
Third on the List: Consider bringing in an outside interim executive director. It might be tempting to make the second-in-command your interim ED, allowing the board to "test-drive" his or her leadership style. This might not be a good idea for several reasons. First, is it fair to that person? I know folks who are frantically trying to balance two oversized jobs (the original and now the ED position), working crazy hours and heading toward burnout. And, is it really meeting the board's objective? You will not know how the person will perform as the ED--only how he or she performs in a high-stress environment with little support and resources. And, if you decide to go in another direction (i.e.; hire someone else), it is likely that you will lose your second-in-command, which might make the transition for the new ED that much more challenging.
Another reason to consider an outside person is that it will allow the board to relax for a moment, knowing that someone experienced is at the helm. You can then take the time necessary to make the decisions that need to be made before moving forward with the search. Many organizations offer interim ED programs, including Executive Service Corps.
Last but not Least: Don't forget to inform your funders. Consider sending a letter from the board outlining your action steps and timeline. Those who financially support your organization want to know that the organization has a plan in place so they feel comfortable continuing their support.
Of course, a well thought out succession plan would have taken all of these issues into consideration, and would provide an action plan for the board and other leadership to follow during an unexpected departure. So be sure to get one in place and review it annually to ensure it remains current.
But if it is too late for the plan, and you need to act--just remember that your first action step should be to stop. Thoughtful planning now will save you much time and resources in the long run.
A Few Succession Planning Resources
Succession Planning for Nonprofit Organizations: A Resource List