Parting is sweet sorrow, but go already!

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.

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3 Responses to “Parting is sweet sorrow, but go already!”

  1. Mary Ann Payne Says:

    I think you’re being a little hard on the Annie E. Casey Foundation. I’ve seen many churches and an equal number of non-profits create havoc for a new executive director who follows a founder or beloved leader. (And yes, I speak from experience.) The Girl Scouts of America seem to have created a system that addresses many of the common issues that surface during a transition by hiring a recently retired GSA exec. as an interim director. While I don’t know the specific details, a friend who served in this position for several councils found it very rewarding personally and very helpful for the agency. Some things I remember from our conversations:

    Many, many, many sacred cows are kept in the previous executive’s head and staff and volunteers are almost laying in wait for a new person to kill one of them unknowingly and unintentionally.
    Similarly, many day-to-day details have never been written down and systems get fouled up quickly when no one knows who to ask for what.
    An interim director can ask hard questions, clean out dead wood, make changes and otherwise incur the wrath (and eventual) gratitude) of everyone involved because everyone knows it’s a temporary assignment – and the “honeymoon period” usually lasts long enough to prevent melt-down while giving changes time enough to prove their usefulness and workability.
    A former exec knows the broader national or international goals as well as has the skills to see what a specific agency is doing that works and doesn’t work – if they are correctly chosen and matched. Evidently the Girl Scouts have processes in place to screen former execs and agencies, offer both some choices so the match is mutual, and provide ongoing support during the transition.

    I’m out of the Girl Scout loop now, but my hunch is that this is part of the management training Peter Drucker put in place for the organization and they would be pleased and proud to share more information. Now I’ll look up the white papers you mention – and probably agree with your assessment.

    Thanks for disseminating all the neat (and not-so-neat) information you find. You provide this old firehouse horse hope for the future of the nonprofit world.

    Mary Ann Payne

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Your point about the hidden sacred cows is a great one–so much of nonprofit leadership is contained in tradition and folk wisdom that a newcomer can barely help violating some beloved ethic, whereupon–wham!–s/he’s behind the 8-ball before s/he can even operate the phone system. The interim executive director idea (which doesn’t appear in the Casey report at all) is likewise excellent, because as you say it’s hard to resent someone who’s going to be gone soon. (This is the same reason nonprofits bring in consultants–to ask the stupid questions, make the rude comments and absorb all the disappointment and anger, which s/he can then carry away like the Biblical scapegoat.) The “interim” system has a much greater likelihood of working than a long overlap between old and new directors.
    But the Girl Scouts, of course, have an advantage that small organizations do not–a pool of qualified, knowledgeable people from which to draw interim EDs. I’m not familiar with any organizations that provide this resource to the broader nonprofit community, though it would be a real service.

  3. Doug Says:

    If it’s needless, it’s definitely complexification.

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