Category: Blog

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 they are leading. In the end, it is their organizations that suffer.

George points to leaders being trapped by external gratification as the source of their fulfillment. Leaders who focus on external gratification instead of inner satisfaction find it difficult to stay grounded. They reject the honest critic who holds a mirror to their face and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with supporters telling them what they want to hear. Over time, they lose the capacity for honest dialogue, and people learn not to confront them. They often choose to listen only to people who reinforce their views, and miss opportunities for wise counsel and authentic conversations.

See if you recognize bosses or colleagues in these archetypes:

Imposters – They rise to leadership through the ranks using cunning and aggression to cover poor leadership skills. When they have acquired power, they are unable to act decisively.

Rationalizers – They blame external forces or subordinates when challenges arise. Without wise counsel, they often resort to desperate measures.

Glory Seekers – They define themselves by money, fame, glory and power, in lieu of building sustainable organizations.

Loners – They believe they can and must make it on their own. They reject feedback while their organizations unravel.

Shooting Stars – They move up so rapidly in their careers that they never have time to learn from their mistakes. When they arrive at the top, they are prone to make irrational decisions.

It is not difficult to spot these leaders who have lost their way, although their peers and colleagues often refrain from honest and challenging dialogue. From our perspective, it is the role of the board to assess and monitor the performance of the organization’s chief executive. If the board is unable to have effective and authentic conversations about how the leader is empowering others, by promoting innovation, inspiration and inclusion, they are not serving as solid stewards of their for-profit and non-profit organizations. It is the responsibility of the board leadership to know that the chief executive is engaged in honest, meaningful dialogue with their employees and their stakeholders. As stewards, they should be mindful of when the chief executive has lost their way to ensure that the organization, not just the leader, is thriving.

Too frequently, we see boards held hostage by long-term leaders, whose tenure is at best tenuous.

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 to manage a scenario such as the incoming board chair’s company transfers him or her to a new position on the other side of the country?

If the board is not practicing good governance, and succession plans are chaotic or worse, non-existent, this may present an even greater risk to the organization’s sustainability than a lack of planning at the chief executive level. If your organization experiences a leadership transition, it may be hard to attract good candidates. Talented professionals interested in nonprofit senior leadership roles are careful to complete their due diligence, and they typically start with a review of the organization’s financial status and board governance practices.

As a new CEO, you can assess the senior team and make changes, moving people into different roles or out of the organization. Addressing a poorly performing board of directors is another matter. It is nearly impossible for a chief executive to make any rapid changes in the composition of a board, particularly if the number of directors is at maximum under the current bylaws. Good candidates may steer clear of an organization with a non-performing board.

Which organizations might be at risk? Nonprofits with

  •  boards that experience excessive turnover, poor governance practices and no orderly plan for recruiting and orienting new members
  •  boards where the majority of directors are high-powered members of the business community who are disengaged, or who serve on so many boards they lack the time to be effective for any one board;
  •  boards that are required to have a specific number of government or political appointees;
  •  founder led boards where the officers or the president have served for many years, the governing bylaws are outdated, don’t include term limits or a process for evaluating the board’s performance.

What processes work well? Here are some examples:

The synagogue board on which I serve has a comprehensive and orderly process for developing board members and exposing potential board leaders to all aspects of governing the synagogue. There are three Vice Presidents, and each has several committees under their supervision. The committees under each Vice President are progressively more comprehensive, with the First Vice President overseeing critical operational areas they must learn about before becoming President, such as Budget-Audit, Development and Fundraising, Facilities and Human Resources. Each Officer serves at least two years in their roles, with Treasurer and Secretary often serving longer if they don’t aspire to higher level leadership. By the time a board member becomes President, they are well grounded in all aspects of both board governance and synagogue programs and operations. They have the opportunity to build their leadership skills and connect broadly with committees and other constituents.

The board of a women’s funding federation rotates board members through the officer levels to develop leadership skills and organizational knowledge. Directors may spend one or two years in the Secretary or Treasurer roles, and two years are required in the Vice Chair and Board Chair roles. The immediate Past Chair spends another year on the board and focuses on board governance and recruitment. This type of progression enables directors to learn about the organization, develop relationships with donors and enhance their leadership skills. The immediate past Board Chair collaborates with current board and professional leadership to identify potential board leaders from among the directors, and works to engage new members, either through committees as a step to board membership, or directly onto the board if appropriate.

You don’t have to put these exact processes in place, but your board does need to think strategically about managing its own succession planning. Be proactive in putting a plan in place – it can benefit board recruitment and ensure a robust candidate pool if a leadership transition at the chief executive level occurs.

For more information about creating board or leadership succession and transition plans, contact TransitionWorks at 610-892-8035.

By Lesley Mallow Wendell

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 we are not there to 

observe him day to day.”

 “We don’t hear any complaints from staff or funders, and the organization runs

 in the black, so why do we need to engage in a time consuming formal process?”

Boards may think they know how the chief executive is really doing, but they frequently lack comprehensive information that presents a full picture of the chief executive’s performance.  Staff who report to the executive director rarely contact board members with feedback unless the individual exhibits egregious behavior.

Conducting an annual review of the chief executive is an important component of good board governance.  Working with the chief executive to ensure that performance review systems are in place for all staff is  a nonprofit management best practice. Most importantly, however, evaluating the chief executive can provide helpful information that will enable the leader to grow and develop their skills and competencies.  Why not choose to have a leader who is continually learning and growing, and has rich feedback to help shape that growth?

One simple, yet effective way to evaluate the chief executive is through the use of multi-rater, or 360° feedback.  Rich and balanced feedback is gathered from peers/colleagues, direct reports, the board chair (or whoever directly oversees the chief executive), and external stakeholders. The process can include a survey, individual interviews or both.  Feedback can be gathered anonymously or openly.  Obtaining a set of rich and robust feedback for the chief executive can be invaluable to that person’s growth and development.  And, it sends a strong message to staff and the extended board that the organization takes performance management and leadership development seriously.

It is important to introduce the feedback process thoughtfully and appropriately, so everyone understands the purpose and structure of the process.  Finding an appropriate tool and structure for the process is also critical.

The Essential 360 Leadership Assessment is an online multi-rate feedback survey that enables boards to evaluate their chief executive in a cost effective way.  Available from Rosewood Consulting Group and TransitionWorks, the survey is easy to administer and collects a rich set of data on eight key areas of leadership competence:

Personal/Interpersonal Interactions


People Orientation

Team Orientation

Stakeholder Orientation

Strategic Orientation




The survey also contains several narrative questions designed to provide comprehensive feedback and recommendations about the leader’s strengths and developmental needs.  We work with you and your chief executive to implement and manage the feedback process.

To learn more about how to effectively evaluate the Chief Executive and The Essential 360 Leadership Assessment, contact us.

by Lesley Mallow Wendell

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 dysfunctional dynamics of an obvious power struggle, as the strength and resiliency of the organization suffers.

Best practices indicate that at the time that a new chief executive or the new board chair assumes their role, the two key leaders would benefit from joint coaching, to clarify expectations on how they can best work together as a team, and create a strategic stewardship.

To enhance the interface between these leadership roles, it is useful to set up formal practices that help both leaders discern between organizational and personal issues to create transparency in their communications. The following suggestions are provided to help ensure an effective partnership:

  • Determining jointly the frequency and focus of meetings to be held between the chief executive and board chair; always record the highlights of these sessions and share with executive committee.
  • Agendas for board meetings developed jointly by the board chair and chief executive.
  • Board chair in consultation with the chief executive, when appointing (or suggesting to the board) chairs for various committees and a slate of officers.
  • Clearly written guidelines about the roles of staff when they provide ongoing support to board committees.
  • Regular board training sessions that define the roles of board chair and chief executive, at least bi-annually.
  • Rotate the board chair position every two-three years to ensure new and fresh perspectives in the role expertise.
  • Developing board chairs by selecting vice chairs who demonstrate requisite leadership.
  • Clearly written performance expectations and outcomes for evaluating the chief executive, with an approach that ensures 360 feedback from all key reports and stakeholders, on regular basis.

Why not begin every new partnership with a conversation about joint expectations?

Authored by Priscilla Rosenwald

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 revenue generation.

CFO’s and COO’s are good managers, adept at overseeing resources through planning and organizing the activities and operations of the organization – while CEO’s are leaders that challenge the process, inspire shared vision, enable others to act, model the way and encourage commitment internally and externally. Often the CEO and CFO/COO have worked as a strong complementary team, with clearly defined internal and external roles. This partnership is often endorsed as “successor planning”.

When the unprepared internal candidate has been selected as successor to the chief executive, the COO-turned-CEO or CFO-turned CEO often departs after a limited and frustrating tenure. The search committee must then engage once again in a long, expensive search process and manage stakeholder and community confidence.

Nothing is more central to a dynamic organization than its capacity to cope with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and change. In this era of rapid change, it is imperative for a nonprofit organization to be more future-oriented, more concerned with selecting the proper direction and selecting the most capable leader.

Today’s nonprofit leaders have to be capable of dealing with revenue generation and sustainability issues that demand courage, decisiveness and action. This makes the distinction between leadership and management quite critical to an organization’s succession planning, as distinct from successor planning.

Authored by Priscilla Rosenwald

Fundraising During a Leadership Transition

-by Priscilla Rosenwald
Fundraising during a leadership transitionHow 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. Read more »

Succession planning is your safety net

A tightrope walker high up in the air.

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 threatening the organization.

We cover this comprehensively in a chapter in “When Leaders Leave” titled “Plan for Success. Plan for Succession.”

Whenever a nonprofit’s leadership team and/or board of directors is discussing strategic planning, succession planning should also be on the agenda. It’s not the easiest subject matter to broach, and it is much easier to do when the board and chief executive have built up a relationship of trust and pro-active cooperation. But all that hard work will be rewarded in a stronger organization able to withstand the challenges presented by leadership transition.

But just as most people would want a safety net below them when they’re attempting a high-wire walk, so too should nonprofit organizations protect themselves by adopting and implementing a comprehensive succession plan.

Boards need more than rubber stamps

Rubber-stamp mark reading "Approved"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 effects of these kinds of difficulties in leadership, and what can be done to right the ship. In a chapter titled “Help the leader find his or her way,” we spotlight how a robust relationship between board and chief executive includes regular check-ins about the direction of the organization and the leader’s legacy.

Too many nonprofit boards reserve these conversations for performance-review time. Check-ins with the chief executive really should be more regular than that. Keeping the lines of communication open increase the chances of the tougher conversations coming up, like the leader’s future plans with and after his or her tenure at the helm of the organization.

When longtime leaders stock the board with friends and allies whose allegiance is to that leader, and not necessarily the organization, the organization may not get the constructive and critical guidance it needs from its board.

One part of providing responsible board stewardship is initiating the difficult conversations, even those about leadership transition planning, before the organization is caught off-guard by business storms or a sudden departure.