Articles / White Papers

“What Lies Beneath” – Inside Leadership Transition in a Charter School

By Susan M. Poglinco and Priscilla Rosenwald. The authors collaborated on this article as a result of a partnership forged between a charter school Board Chair (Poglinco) and a retained Executive Search Leader (Rosenwald) of Leadership Recruiters with experience leading searches for organizations at critical crossroads. The two worked together for more than a year to launch an internal search committee, select a new leader and CEO, and get through the onboarding process in this 600 student charter school located in a large city in the northeast. This article chronicles some of the expected and unanticipated challenges they encountered. Introduction  Leadership transitions and organizational change can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Striking a balance between maintaining areas of success and achievement with the promise of a new direction for a school can be delicate. Change in leadership is, indeed, a painful thought. But avoiding or postponing leadership change could pu …


Nonprofit Leadership Transition: Sustaining Organizational Success When a Founder or Long-Term Leader Departs

Nonprofit organizations are predicted to transition their chief executive at a staggering rate for the foreseeable future. Many of these organizations are led by founders, or long-time leaders who have functioned as founders. Download White Paper. This document is featured on the Pennsylvania Nonprofit Report website.


Evaluating the Chief Executive

Many of the nonprofit chief executives we meet lament that they do not get 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. All too often, board leadership fails to regularly evaluate the chief executive. Over the years, board chairs have shared a variety of reasons for this over the years: “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 compr …


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 …


Asleep at the Helm

In A Perfect Storm, we talked about the leadership crisis that ensues when boards avoid discussion of succession planning for fear of rocking the boat. More recently we’ve observed a new crisis — board leadership in high profile organizations with long-term chief executives who have neglected to provide serious oversight and due diligence. Often, the long-term or founding chief executive has been unreceptive to board oversight, while steering the ship without involving their board in critical strategic, financial, or capacity decisions. Imagine the board’s surprise when the organization hits stormy weather or the leader exits dramatically. It is no surprise that these boards subsequently discover financial mismanagement and the ravages of autocratic leadership that has resulted in poor morale and ailing programs/services. The board then navigates with all hands on deck and frantically seeks a turn-around skipper. If only wishful thinking were replaced by strategic governance… How abo …


Letter to the Editor: Stanford Social Innovation Review

Thank you for publishing “Mission-Driven Governance.” After working with dozens of nonprofits, I have found that board members do not fully appreciate… Download Letter >


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 …


Best Practices for Effective Board Leadership

Every nonprofit organization (as well as public agency) is looking for the perfect board chairperson who can excel at every aspect of leading the organization to the next level. It’s true that the board chair is a critical element to a successful organization. Selecting a board chair must be a careful and strategically well-planned process. You don’t select a board chair based on who raises their hand first and cries “pick me.” Serving as the chair of a board is not a role for the undecided or inexperienced. To do the job right demands at times exceptional and supernatural qualities, endless energy, and undivided attention and commitment. Accepting the responsibility of leading a nonprofit board, not just serving as a figurehead, assumes that the chair possesses the leadership competencies through demonstrated (professional or volunteer) experience to do an effective job and produce results, namely leading a team, running a business, or handling the allocation of resources. From our ex …


Ensuring Mission-Driven Board Leadership

After working with dozens of nonprofit organizations — both on the inside and the outside — I have found that, regardless of the size or scope of the organization, board members do not fully appreciate the strategic importance of their governance role. It’s not an easy topic to talk about. After all, many nonprofit board members are well-established leaders in their communities, and they are confident that they understand their role on the board and fulfill it dutifully. Ultimately it comes down to a simple question: “Is the board acting in the best interest of the organization’s mission or simply administrating its activities?” If the answer is the latter, it’s time to re-educate the board. This is most evident in times of leadership change. A proactive, mission-focused board will build succession planning into their strategic process. Not surprisingly, many organizations have not focused on succession planning or talent management, so the departure of the chief executive leaves the b …


How to Weather the Loss of a Leader and Keep Up the Mission

Recovering after an unexpected departure – or in this unfortunate case, an untimely passing – can be a major challenge for nonprofits and corporations alike and it can happen to any group, at any time, regardless of its size.  — Download Article >


The Perfect Storm: or How to Plan a Leadership Crisis

In Sebastian Junger’s award winning novel, “The Perfect Storm”, a confluence of conditions combined to form a killer storm in the North Atlantic. The strong-willed and stubborn captain ignored the warnings and forged ahead, mortally endangering his crew and his ship. A leadership transition can unleash the perfect storm organizationally in much the same way. Often we find many boards even seek the thrills that may come with a leadership crisis. Denial is a great avoidance mechanism. For most organizations, it is just too painful to think that your beloved executive could be lured away by another organization. The board knows they have a star — why worry? It never occurs to you that others may recognize that star power and actively recruit it. Your ED’s health or family crisis would never be serious enough for it to take precedence over the organization; that happens to other folks. And of course, your executive director is so committed to your agency and its mission that he or she woul …


The Interim Interlude in a Transition

One of the most overlooked opportunities in executive transitions is how to make the most of the interim period, which is the time between the departure of the incumbent and when the new executive starts. Some boards panic during this time and rush to find someone to “bridge the gap.” One of the most overlooked opportunities in executive transitions is how to make the most of the interim period, which is the time between the departure of the incumbent and when the new executive starts. Some boards panic during this time and rush to find someone to “bridge the gap.” Providing stable management for an organization when it is without a permanent executive is important, but so much more is possible. A competent intentional interimcan help institute changes that can turn around an organization in crisis. In stable organizations, an interim can provide an important respite between a founder, or other “big shoes” leader, and his/her successor. This interim time can be essential for the organi …