Creating a Leadership Legacy … Managing Successful Executive Transitions

Leadership transitions are under-realized opportunities to strengthen organizations. If founders and visionary leaders approach the transition process as an opportunity to add capacity and strength, they are able to anticipate the strategic challenges that impact the staff, board, and community stakeholders during the change in leadership.

Prior to recruiting a successor, organizations can address the important presenting issues, work through the change process, and implement new strategies and new directions.

In our work with seasoned nonprofit leaders, we know that for many individuals, thinking about moving on while leaving a legacy can be a source of anxiety. It is difficult to talk publicly about succession because it seems to make your board, your staff and key funders apprehensive.

Our approach to succession planning is to create a long-term process for assessing, managing and developing talent across the organization. The goal is not to name specific successors, but to identify the experience and performance issues that affect the organization’s ability to flourish following the departure of the chief executive. When a leadership transition occurs, it offers a natural, although brief, opportunity to shake up the status quo and effect fundamental change. This can be a unique chance to reset an organization’s rhythms to the requirements of the future — if well planned.

Advance planning promotes continuity in leadership, provides the time the organization needs to prepare for the future and signals to stakeholders that the board is planning wisely for the future. In the case of founders and visionary leaders, they are generally conflicted about whether and when to leave, and experience a labored period of indecision. Whether you are far from ready, or in the process of planning your departure, it is critical to have a guide to help you address the organizational issues involved in ensuring your legacy. Executives who do make the transition successfully often focus on the kind of legacy they want to leave behind from the very beginning of their planning. This provides a way to set their sights on the finish line.

When executives position their organizations for change, they are free to respond positively to opportunities to move in a new direction. There is nothing more important for a leader to do than leave behind an organization that feels like a winner — confident of its future.