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Leaders who lose their way

By Priscilla Rosenwald We have been intrigued with long-term leaders and their ability or inability to continue to be innovative, inspirational and inclusive over time. More often, our experience with many long-term leaders has been that their tenure exceeds their abilities, and this finding has been confirmed by Bill George, celebrated author of True North, who speaks of “why leaders lose their way”. As transition consultants, we encourage organizations to robustly assess their impact, direction and the effectiveness of their leadership. Leadership tenure does not automatically confer success – despite the status and prestige. This can easily be witnessed in the unlimited tenure of politicians, legislators and judges. Often they develop a sense of entitlement, and when these political leaders and legislators fall from grace, it is always because they “lost their way”. The same is true of organizational leaders, whether it is a large profit-driven business or a mission-driven nonprofit …


Don’t Skip Succession Planning for Your Board

Succession and transition planning have become increasingly important as nonprofit boards and funders are more focused on ensuring that organizations can function effectively if a leader departs. The entire emphasis is on the professional leader, with little attention paid to how the board manages its own transition. It is critical to have a succession plan in place for professional leadership, but equally important for the board to pay attention to its own development and succession planning. Good nonprofit governance supports the creation of a process at the board level. Here are some questions to focus your thinking: 1. How does your board recruit new directors? 2. How are members assessed and groomed for potential leadership roles? 3. What board committees and roles do directors need to participate in before they can serve effectively as officers? 4. Is there a plan in place for board leadership to ensure a smooth transition to new officers? 5. Are there contingency plans in place …


Evaluating the Chief Executive

Are performance reviews really necessary? Many of the nonprofit chief executives we meet lament that they do not get enough ongoing feedback from their boards, or receive regular annual performance reviews.  It’s hard for leaders to achieve their personal best when they lack feedback on which to base their development.  This is particularly true for chief executives, who can be more isolated than other nonprofit executives. Once a new executive hire is in place, it is critical for the board to provide a comprehensive evaluation at the end of the first year. Going forward, board leadership should commit to regularly evaluating the chief executive.  Unfortunately, many boards fail to do this, missing key opportunities to enhance the leadership of the organization. Over the years, board chairs have shared a variety of reasons for this: “We know she is doing a good job, so we just tell her informally  and give her a salary increase.”  “It takes too much time, and it’s too difficult because …


Partnership for Strategic Stewardship: Chief Executive and Board Chair

Today’s nonprofit organizations operate in a more challenging environment than ever before.  Survival and success depend upon effective, innovative leadership, and productive board/staff relationships, while anticipating and planning for the future. As changes in leadership are inevitable throughout the life of organizations, it is critical to plan ahead. Successful organizations have the stability and the resiliency to respond to changes in both their internal and external environments. One of the most important ingredients of a successful organization is the strategic stewardship between the board chair and chief executive. In partnership, these two leaders are jointly responsible for the stability and sustainability of the enterprise. This relationship has clear challenges and opportunities which will determine the strength of the partnership. When this partnership is not operating smoothly, we have seen  organizations placed in great jeopardy. Everyone is impacted by the dysfunctio …


Naming the Internal Successor: Stepping up from CFO/COO to CEO

In selecting the next chief executive to lead a nonprofit organization, search committees often limit their expectations to how the role could be continued without making waves. They often make a hiring decision based on institutional knowledge, rather than future challenges.  Inherently, they focus on keeping the status quo, and select the internal COO or CFO candidate, who had not developed or demonstrated the ability to lead. A robust succession plan would have served as a roadmap for talent management, prior to the leadership transition; unfortunately, countless organizations often have not provided the executive coaching to enable the internal CFO or COO to succeed as CEO in an external leadership role.  From our recruiting experience, we suggest that in the process of assessing talent for a leadership transition, the board would be wise to keep the terms leader and manager quite distinct – if the board wants the next chief executive to create new ideas, and engage stakeholders in …


Fundraising During a Leadership Transition

-by Priscilla Rosenwald How important is maintaining a strong fundraising pipeline? Every organization has the potential to go through a leadership change and emerge with organizational and financial strength. The transition provides a unique chance for the organization to manage change by establishing good leadership practices and engaging internal and external stakeholders while demonstrating an environment of resiliency. Stakeholders are often overlooked during a leadership transition. Not surprisingly, many organizations suffer a significant decline in fundraising following a leadership change. Often, individual and institutional donors are left out of communications regarding the leadership change. They may have been cultivated by the departing leader and feel their strongest connection to the individual even more than the organization. Donors may respond to the leadership change with disappointment, uncertainty, and possible disengagement, if they are not included in the transiti …


“When Leaders Leave” available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

“When Leaders Leave” by Priscilla Rosenwald and Lesley Mallow Wendell is now available at:  


Succession planning is your safety net

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Graeme Maclean. If your organization doesn’t have a comprehensive succession plan in place, it’s walking a tightrope without a safety net. The problem is organizations fall – and fail – all the time and suffer the bumps, bruises and worse awaiting at the bottom. Too many organizations fail to prepare at all for turnover at the top. That’s one reason we’ve written our book, When Leaders Leave: A New Perspective on Leadership Change. Perhaps as often, what exists is an emergency succession plan. This reactive plan spells out how an organization will continue operations in the event of an unplanned absence or sudden departure of the chief executive or a key manager. What’s more rare, but even more essential for the long-term health of the organization, is a comprehensive succession plan. Instead of reacting to a one-time crisis, the comprehensive succession plan lays out a process for mapping the landscape, preparing for contingencies and minimizing risks thr …


Boards need more than rubber stamps

Is your nonprofit board rubber-stamping the executive director’s decisions without really scrutinizing them? If the answer is yes, you may not be serving your organization’s best interest. Board members must take a hard look at themselves and the responsibilities they must assume in the long-term interest of the organization. They have to know whether they’re providing the right amount of necessary oversight, or if they are simply rubberstamping the decisions of the leader who may also be a longtime friend. In fact, one of the most common causes of a board’s failure to exercise the necessary oversight is simply a too-cozy relationship between the board and the leader.  While a good working relationship between board and nonprofit leader is essential, if it gets so chummy that it causes the board to shirk its responsibilities, then it could mean trouble for the nonprofit. In our new book, When Leaders Leave: A New Perspective on Leadership Change, we highlight the possible causes and ef …


Align the legacies

Have you ever sat down to read a book, magazine or newspaper and recognized that something’s off? The color of the image bleeds past the outline, as if the printer hadn’t learned to “color within the lines” as we tell our young ones with their coloring books. What has happened is that the alignment is off; the printer is delivering the right colors, but if they’re not lined up just so, the whole picture looks wrong. Colors on the printed page are a visible sign of an alignment challenge. As leadership-transition consultants, one we learn about very often — often harder to recognize — is the alignment of the interests and legacies of nonprofit leaders and the organizations they lead, especially when the leader is nearing the end of her or his tenure. We’ve devoted a chapter in our new book, When Leaders Leave: A New Perspective on Leadership Change, to “Aligning the Legacies.” We ask the questions, and provide some answers and even more tools to help you move forward, to determine wheth …


Kickstart your transition. Today.

The departure of a long-time leader is a prospect that few nonprofit organizations and their boards care to contemplate. It’s all too easy for organizations to grow overly dependent on that one charismatic leader – typically a founder – who built up the edifice of the institution, its funding and even its board. But change happens. At some point, if the organization survives, the leader will leave. Often the writing is on the wall long before a resignation letter is penned and a retirement party planned. Some leaders burn out, and their exit is an overdue opportunity for the organization to move on. Other directors have done exceptional jobs in leadership and discover new opportunities and challenges on the horizon they want to take on. Often organizations postpone leadership legacy planning because neither the board nor the leader wants to provoke the anxiety that can happen just by introducing the topic. In reality, leadership legacy planning belongs in every strategic discussion. In …


To get where you’re going, start where you are

An illustration of a GPS satellite. Courtesy of NASA. More and more of us are relying on Global Positioning Systems to find our ways around town and around the country. While many of us have horror stories of being led astray by erroneous directions, far more of our GPS-guided trips have led to our intended destinations. But those directions, and the whole incredible system of satellite-calibrated coordinates that provide them, can’t be accurate without a crucial first step: Knowing where you are in the first place. It’s true for all kinds of journeys, whether you seek guidance in the stars or not: You can’t know where you’re going without knowing where you are. The same is especially true for organizations and leadership transition planning. How prepared is your organization for a change of leadership?  Evaluating your organization’s strengths and challenges when it comes to its readiness for the sudden or gradual exit of your leader is essential to figuring out your next steps forwar …


Inquirer series highlights sustainability challenges

Arts and cultural institutions are grappling with significant change. This is clearly demonstrated in Philadelphia as the first two of Peter Dobrin’s three-part Sunday series for the Philadelphia Inquirer have made clear.  To the many excellent insights this reporting is sharing about Philadelphia’s evolving arts sector, we have one to add: Think about the importance of leadership transitions in determining which organizations thrive and which are throttled! Dobrin’s series is illuminating how declines in governmental and foundation support is affecting the City of Brotherly Love’s renowned arts sector, key to Center City’s rebirth but uncertain in its future footing. The first article examined how a Philadelphia arts revival that was rooted in the city’s urban core is now expanding and unsettling the relationship between institutions and their home city. The second installment examined how shifts among the few foundations and philanthropists who funded the lion’s share of arts and cul …


Thoughts on CEO Dennis Wint’s exit from the Franklin Institute

One of Philadelphia’s keystone institutions, the Franklin Institute, absorbed the news last week that its longtime CEO, Dennis Wint, is stepping down next year. Much has been written about the singular legacy Wint has forged at the Franklin Institute, and his departure announcement was nicely timed with a milestone toward completion of its $41.5 million Karabots Pavillion, a 53,000-square-foot addition that will open in June 2014. Wint’s departure and the transition the Franklin Institute is experiencing – board chair Marsha Perelman is also stepping down from the board of directors – illustrate key principles we explore in depth in our new book, “When Leaders Leave.” Wint told Newsworks’ Peter Crimmins: “There’s a lot of transition, and to have me transition earlier than the end of the year would put another unknown factor in the equation. I said I’ll stay through the end of the year, to get us through a lot of this transition, and then it will be time to step down.” That quote shows …


Succeed at succession: Learning from Ballmer’s Microsoft exit

Is your organization prepared for turnover at the top? Dominating the headlines these days is the news, analysis and speculation surrounding Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s exit. Opinions are at best mixed, at least among media commentators and shareholders, about Ballmer’s reign over the tech giant that his predecessor, Bill Gates, built. Just one month before announcing his upcoming departure, Ballmer reassured the public, and shareholders, that Microsoft did indeed have a succession plan in place. In a Seattle Times interview, Ballmer said: “Our board always has a succession plan. The specifics of what our board is thinking is confidential. But I can say our board has put a lot of time and energy into the notion of both longer-term succession, as well as what I’d call the “what if the CEO gets hit by the bus” succession.” Ballmer’s words helped prepare the wider world for the news that came a month later: That he would depart within the next 12 months, upon the Microsoft board’s ident …


Homework beckons for nonprofit boards

Studying up on succession plans can help organizations ace their biggest test Our kids are going back to school; perhaps our board members should, too. Long before next Spring’s board retreats, members of nonprofit boards should start doing their homework about their organization’s leadership transition planning. Such planning is not usually atop a new board member’s agenda when she or he accepts a board position. But, as we show in our forthcoming book, “When Leaders Leave,” perhaps it should be, as the presence or absence of a thorough leadership transition plan says a lot about the long-term health and resilience of a nonprofit organization. Just as parents don’t want to be the ones rushing to the store the night before the first day of school, so too should new board members ask about and study up on their organization’s plans should the current leader decide to, or need to, depart suddenly. A chapter in our new book, “When Leaders Leave,” captures what it takes to “Build a Great B …


Summer’s end – no time to avoid thinking about leadership transitions Seasons change & so do CEOs

As summer vacations or slow seasons are ending, some of us are doing anything we can to not think about work while the weather beckons us outdoors. And if there’s a conflict or stressful situation awaiting us at our workplace, all the more reason to take another dive into the water. But escaping underwater or putting your head in the sand won’t make the problem go away. The same holds true for succession planning at nonprofit organizations. It’s a simple fact that every organization’s leader, no matter how indispensible they seem or how long they’ve been guiding the organization, will leave someday. Change is the one constant we can all count on. But just because we all know a leadership transition is coming eventually doesn’t mean that our organizations, our leaders and especially our boards of directors are all prepared for that inevitable transition. We have recently completed a book that distills decades of experience helping nonprofit organizations manage these transitions. “When …


How Does a Leadership Transition Differ From an Executive Search?

A leadership transition is the management of the entire anticipation-departure-recruitment-integration process in a holistic fashion … It focuses on minimizing the risk and capturing all of the opportunities that a change in long-term and founding leaders offers. Leadership transitions begin with the chief executive’s decision to depart — or the Board’s commencement of transition planning — and extends through the hiring and successful on-boarding of the new executive. The transition management process includes: Helping the organization better understand its history, present situation, and future prospects as it relates to the selection of a new leader; Identifying and addressing any organizational challenges or legacy issues that might hinder the success of the incoming leader; Considering the need for an interim executive to shore up systems in preparation for new leadership; Ensuring that the governance team (the board and executive team) has a clear and effective social contract th …


Founders and Long-Term Leaders: Departure is Such Sweet Sorrow!

In our work around leadership transitions, we continually observe a number of negative outcomes that appear to occur when a founder/long-term leader seeks to maintain disproportionate power and influence. Indications of the resulting organizational dysfunction may include: over time, the organization becomes overly identified with the founder/leader; no succession plan exists; the founder/leader is at the center of all decision-making; the organization becomes reactive, rather than proactive, and there is little input from staff or board into decisions; staff loyalty, rather than ideas and expertise, ensures the founder/leader is surrounded by cheerleaders rather than challengers; limited or lack of professional development of existing staff leadership re-enforces and solidifies the founder/leader’s power; the board is often selected by the founder/leader, and their role is often relegated to “support” the leader/founder, rather than to lead the organization; the board may be a “rubber …


Planning to Succeed: Creating a Succession Plan

If your leader leaves, do you have a plan to avoid a crisis? A few months ago, the executive director of a small arts nonprofit felt a crisis coming on. He enjoyed his work immensely but wasn’t sure if the organization was the best vehicle for the kind of art he wanted to produce. Rather than bottling up his concerns, he brought them to his board members, who were supportive of his efforts to reconcile his artistic vision with the requirements of his position. Still, it left the board with an unsettling question: “What do we do if he leaves?” Avoid the Pitfalls of Departure When a nonprofit leader leaves unexpectedly, it’s a crisis point that — if handled poorly — can jeopardize an organization’s operation. But organizations that prepare for the unexpected find that succession planning eases transitions. The reasons for a leader’s departure affect an organization’s response to it. Executives leaving for personal reasons provoke different questions than if they move to a competing organ …