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. Including leadership legacy planning as a regular part of the organization’s conversation begins to minimize its negative impact, and the fear it invokes.
Those are just some of the reasons that organizations postpone leadership transition planning. We compiled more from our insights working with nonprofit organizations in the new book, When Leaders Leave: A New Perspective on Leadership Change. We note that poor decisions, or decision avoidance, can lead to stagnancy and a complacency that adds to the challenges the organization faces in achieving its vision and mission.
When the inevitable can no longer be avoided, and the wheels are in motion towards new leadership, organizations must not delay. There’s no time to waste once it becomes known that the founder or long-term leader will be exiting the organization. It’s time for active transition planning. As we illustrate in a chapter in When Leaders Leave titled “Kickstart Leadership Transition,” active transition planning should start 12 to 18 months before the chief executive departs.
This planning is usually done by the leader in collaboration with the board, the board’s transition planning committee, and/or with guidance from an external transition consultant.
Many more navigation tools for how an organization should approach the shoals of leadership transition are in the pages of When Leaders Leave. But if you know how quickly the damage of a poorly planned transition can start compounding, as we have learned, you will start the process today.