Be careful what you wish for

Long ago the Nonprofiteer had a client hire her to manage the transition from the founding Executive Director to—well, to whatever future awaited the agency in his absence.  It was impressive, actually, that the founder himself was the one who realized first (and persuaded the Board) that transition planning was necessary.

But it turns out that recognizing the need for transition planning is quite a long way from being prepared for actual transition.  While the founder was theoretically in favor of Life After Him, in practice he was working to set in stone the practices, policies, goals and programs of Life During Him.  Though he would have denied this, his purpose was to prevent transition.  The person at the helm would change but first the founder was going to assure that the new pilot’s heading would not deviate a single degree from his predecessor’s course.

The only surprise here is the Nonprofiteer’s failure to expect this absolutely predictable occurrence.  (Well, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, either.)  But even the smartest consultant isn’t a mind-reader, and so we mostly undertake to do what the client articulates as the job.  Of course there will be undercurrents and cross-currents and breakers and riptides, but at least we’re all sailing in the same direction.

Except in this case we weren’t.  When the Nonprofiteer met with the Board and challenged its members to move beyond the founder and take true ownership of the agency as essential preparation for hiring a successor, she found them champing at the bit to do so.  They had little experience with governance because they’d let the founder run things pretty much as he pleased; but that didn’t mean they had little interest in the subject.  In fact, once they began to talk about things that could be done more or less or differently or better, they were neither to hold nor to bind.  And, having gotten precisely what he’d said he wanted, the founder was furious—at, of course, the Nonprofiteer.

So here’s a warning to all you consultants out there: when you’re doing transition planning, assume that any founder who purports to be okay with leaving is lying like a rug.  And to all you Baby Boomer founders out there, approaching retirement faster than we ever thought possible: if you’re serious about transition, find a consultant and go for it, but don’t expect the process to be smooth.  Having a baby taken from your arms is a difficult experience, so don’t go through it til you’re confident that the nanny—your Board of Directors—can be trusted not to drop it.

What if you’re ready to retire and don’t trust the Board?  (You shouldn’t have a Board you can’t trust, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.)  Then shut the agency down.   If the only way it can operate is your way, and you’re about to leave, end of story.

But if you want your creation to outlast your own tenure, brace yourself: with transition, you’re in for the ride of your life.

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6 Responses to “Be careful what you wish for”

  1. Mazarine Says:

    I heard of a similar situation where the interim ED would not relinquish control. She was the former board chair. And each new ED we got in, she ushered them out the door by simply being unwilling to let go of any control. So 3 EDs later, she was the official ED. 5 years later, she finally saw fit to leave the agency in more capable hands.

    Wise words to remember, indeed.

    Thanks for writing this post!

    Mazarine

  2. Doug Says:

    Any thoughts on how to construct a non-profit so that it’s ready for transition when the time comes?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      The best way is to spend a lot of energy building and training the Board to lead the institution. Then when the time comes to find a successor for the founder/key leader, it won’t be the first responsibility the Board has ever discharged. The only way to get comfortable with leadership is to lead, so it’s best not to delay the experience. The situation cited by Mazarine, below, of the Interim ED who simply would not leave–like the Man Who Came to Dinner–would have been impossible if she hadn’t been facing a completely disempowered Board, one that didn’t understand that its job was to relieve her of hers.

  3. Doug Says:

    Thanks! And judging from Mazarine’s comment, make sure that the whole Board is engaged and not just the chair.

  4. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Speaking from a board member’s perspective, I think the way to go when you see this Life During Him situation coming up is to mention transitional planning as an agenda item at a time when everyone is preoccupied with something else, preferably a happy or celebratory event.

    Stick it into the minutes and the discourse as something to do later. That way you can bring up transition planning as something to be taken on relatively soon. Get the phrase into the air, so that when you finally announce an action item that has to be implemented, Himself can’t claim he was blindsided and betrayed.

    It’s a slow strategy, but it might ease the shock and pain that charismatic leaders feel when change supersedes them.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Excellent thought: it’s a lot easier to talk about transition planning from a distance than close up, so the sooner it’s mentioned, the better.

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