An RFP came across our desk recently from an agency about to lose its founding director, asking for a consultant "to guide an executive transition process
comparable to that described in publications of the Annie E. Casey Foundation." Intrigued, the Nonprofiteer went to the Casey Website and found, sure enough, a series of white papers on executive transition, including a step-by-step method for its management. But after reading it, she wonders whether it’s much ado about nothing.
There’s no question that losing a founding or long-time executive director is a traumatic experience for nonprofits, and that this experience is likely to become more frequent as the ever-popular Baby Boomers begin to retire in large numbers. There’s also no question that the transition offers an opportunity for reflection on the nature and purpose of a charity, and finally no question that this combination of trauma and opportunity should be managed with some awareness of its pitfalls.
That said, the Casey formula (created by CompassPoint, a consulting firm with a specialty in executive transition) needlessly complicates (complexifies?) the process, making it appear impossible for an agency to undergo it without–guess what?–the services of a consulting firm with a specialty in executive transition. Based on such guidance, the RFP that sparked all this investigation contemplates a process that will take nearly two years–an extended bout of navel-gazing during which, presumably, the agency also has to maintain its raison d’etre, not to mention the quality of services for its clients and relationships with its funders.
The emperor has no clothes. "Executive Transition Management" is nothing more than a species of strategic planning, and that in turn nothing more than the process of asking, "What are we trying to do, and for whom? What’s in the way? How can we remove those obstacles?" Certainly the earlier an agency begins to address these questions, the more likely it is to be able to find a new chief executive who can lead it in the direction it determines, and certainly a wise Board will hire a leader to execute a strategic plan rather than create one. (Particularly if commenter underalms is correct, and the only truly strategic decision for any nonprofit is merger with a larger agency, it only makes sense to consider going out of business before hiring someone whose job will be to keep you from doing so.)
But really: a two-year five-step process? As described by Casey/CompassPoint, there’s–
- An initial consultation and assessment with required competencies and priorities for the next executive;
- A capacity building plan;
- Compensation review;
- Candidate screening and selection assistance; and
- Post-hire plan.
Given this level of elaboration, no wonder (as the Casey report says) "Change is hard . . . . Change is costly . . . . Help is hard to find." Let’s try this instead:
- A planning process to determine the agency’s future; and
- Appropriate follow-up, including anything from merger negotiations to recruitment of a new CEO on the basis of the plan.
There’s no earthly reason this should take two years; 6 months for each step is generous. And by the way, though it’s essential to ask the retiring CEO to do a core-dump description of his/her regular tasks and thoughts about them–which, if it’s honest, will include observations like, "We really should do this but we haven’t because I don’t know how and am therefore afraid of it, but my successor won’t have those handicaps"–nonprofits should resist the urge to create a lengthy overlap between EDs. Having been on both sides of such long goodbyes, the Nonprofiteer knows that they produce little except a double helping of frustration and resentment.
[The only advantage of a lengthy transition is to give the new ED time to find out that the old ED has been cooking the books–and honestly, if that’s the case s/he’ll know soon enough and will be better-positioned to fix it if not subject to the baleful glares of his/her prison-bound predecessor.]
A final note: all of the foregoing applies to social service agencies. Arts groups with a charismatic founding artistic director need to focus a bit differently, and decide whether the group has a vision worth carrying forward, or whether in fact the vision was a personal one that will (and should) end with the passing of the old regime. Probably more arts groups should go out of business at this stage than currently do: it’s very common for them to limp along for two or seven years before finally dumping assets (including good will, if any remains) onto a willing taker. Arts groups must decide whether to become institutions or to remain forever ideas in the minds of their creators–and if it’s the latter, to know how to go gentle into that good night.
There’s no growing old gracefully in the nonprofit sector–there’s only the quick, and the dead.