Nothing remains the same forever. At some point, every organization must deal with a change in leadership. Sometimes the change is sudden, with an illness or unexpected departure creating an immediate and often chaotic situation. But in many other cases, the retirement of a leader is anticipated and can either be a time of exciting renewal or a time of anxious confusion. Some organizations, due to lack of planning, flounder through this process. They lose sight of their vision and priorities and cause additional stress for staff members during a tumultuous time. However, with proper planning and effective communication, an organization can flourish through transition, guided by an outgoing leader who fosters a positive and productive transfer of power.
In the following pages, I will: 1) examine specific ways you, as a leader, can effectively manage the transition process as you approach your retirement; 2) identify some critical missteps and missed opportunities that often occur through leadership transitions; and 3) offer a practical and actionable set of steps every leader can take to ensure a smooth transition. Additionally, I’ll outline how you can drive the process to position the organization for ongoing success and to ensure the legacy you wish to leave behind.
The Retirement Decision
Looking Inward to Look Ahead
As you begin to approach retirement age, it is a good idea to look carefully at the current status of your organization and staff. Ask yourself the following:
Does your organization have an updated strategic plan?
Going into a transition period with an updated strategic plan provides clear direction and a sense of unified purpose through a challenging time. In addition, the process of creating an updated strategic plan helps bring leadership and staff together, rallied around collective goals and a shared commitment to advancing the mission. Updating your strategic plan immediately prior to launching a search process provides two to three years of clarity on strategic direction and organizational goals and will help the Board and/or search committee identify the key characteristics required in a new leader to move the organization forward. Even though a new leader will want to establish their own strategic priorities in time, having an active strategic plan guiding organizational direction and defining priorities throughout a transition period can significantly impact positive momentum, provide clear direction to remaining staff members and decrease the stress of change. Remember, a leadership transition, including the search and the onboarding process, takes time; therefore, it is critical that an organization is well equipped with a strategic plan during that period.
What specific priorities do you need to personally shepherd along prior to retiring?
Look at the priorities defined in the strategic plan and determine which ones require your specific attention. Are there certain donors, public officials and/or partners with whom you should take special care in the lead-up to your retirement announcement? Perhaps you need to strategize about which current staff members should be accompanying you to strategic meetings or visits in order to build continuity and to ensure that your organization is nurturing these important relationships through the transition. Proactive efforts help maintain stakeholder confidence in the organization’s goals and direction, and pave the way for new leadership to take the reins. Are there emerging facility needs that you want to help shape or a particular program for which you want to advocate? Now is the time to define the issues that are important to you and to outline the steps necessary to achieve your final short-term goals.
Have you invested in the professional development of your senior staff and management team?
In your time as leader, you have most likely identified people throughout your organization— especially on the leadership team—who exemplify the ideals that are important to you and who will serve your organization well through its next phase. It is important that you serve as a mentor to these emerging leaders and ensure that they are empowered to succeed in their current roles and beyond. Take this time to further delegate your roles and duties to your team; give them an opportunity for trial and error while you are still there to coach them. Delegating also allows you to free up time for the most pressing strategic opportunities and for actively transitioning stakeholder relationships.
Ideally, there should be one or more internal candidates for the position you will be vacating. Even though internal candidates are not guaranteed the job, you should be grooming at least one person as your potential successor. This effort shouldn’t be an afterthought, but rather something you are working on for years to allow for proper professional development and coaching. Supporting your staff members’ development as internal candidates will involve a careful assessment and honest appraisal of their capabilities, strengths, weaknesses and overall fit for the job in relation to the position profile, job description and the vision and priorities detailed in the strategic plan. You have the opportunity and responsibility now to help position these individuals as internal candidates.
All internal candidates should be reminded that they will be considered alongside the external candidates using the same criteria and evaluations. Even a management team member who is perceived to be your “right hand” may not be the best candidate in the end. Internal candidates should also know that you will be providing your candid assessment of their potential to the search committee. In many cases, internal candidates do rise to the top through the search process. You have the opportunity to help them and your organization by supporting their growth and encouraging collegiality and cooperation among all—even as they might be pursuing the same goal.
Is your Board composed of active and engaged individuals who are committed to advancing the mission of your organization?
You will need to rely on your Board in a new way throughout a leadership change. Hiring the next leader is the most important role of the Board. Open communication back and forth will set the stage for how the transition process will unfold. Mutual respect and trust are necessary components of a successful leadership transition. Some Board members will be called upon to serve on the search committee and will be instrumental in guiding your organization through this process. In the period of time leading up to the transition, it is critical that there is an increased effort around Board engagement, especially to ensure that the members accurately understand the strategic opportunities and challenges facing the organization. This could be a great time for a Board retreat and other planning/brainstorming workshops with the Board beyond regular meetings.
Have you remained connected to best practices and emerging trends in your field and maintained active involvement in professional growth?
As some people approach retirement, they may give in to the temptation to step back and coast a little. This is a common, but costly, mistake. Your role as leader is to ensure the ongoing viability and relevance of your organization. You also have an opportunity to share your expertise with others coming up in the field. Leverage the opportunity to delegate some of your responsibilities to allow time for collaboration with other leaders in your field, for public speaking engagements and for other types of visibility that can position your organization as a leading player in the industry. Failure to keep up with the times, to share your expertise or to learn from others’ insights puts your organization at a distinct disadvantage and limits your ability to determine what your organization will need to thrive in the future. It also impacts your outreach and networking capabilities as your organization initiates the search.
How would you articulate your position profile? How do your personal strengths and weaknesses come into play?
Defining the key roles and responsibilities of your position is a necessary initial step in outlining what your organization needs to be successful moving forward. How did the role evolve through your tenure, and why? Identifying your own contributions to the organization’s success and the areas where you have struggled will help determine the traits desired in the next leader and how existing staff strengths can be utilized or further developed. Perhaps you were a natural at cultivating relationships with donors and successful at making the big asks. Or maybe your expertise was more in operations. Whatever the case, an honest evaluation of strengths and weaknesses can provide a solid indicator as to how new leadership might bring a different focus to an organization. In consultation with the Board and key staff members, a new position profile should be developed to reflect the current state of the organization and its future priorities. Your most recent strategic planning process should inform the profile’s shift from what you bring as the current leader to what is needed for the future.
Overall, as the leader, a significant part of your professional responsibility is to take the time and effort to ensure that your organization is running at high standards and is well prepared in the years leading up to your retirement.
Initiating the Transition Process
Once you have determined that retirement is approaching, it’s time to talk to your Board and create a communication plan to manage and share the message. Primary questions in developing an effective communication plan around a transition include:
Communication about the transition provides a key opportunity for the outgoing leader and the Board to bolster staff and donor confidence and position the possibilities moving forward.
Recruiting an Effective Search Committee
With 12 to 18 months’ notice, an organization has sufficient time to absorb the news of a leader’s pending departure, establish a search committee, execute a search and pivot to new leadership—all while continuously advancing the mission and celebrating the legacy of the outgoing leader. Longer timeframes—up to, but no more than, three years—can provide a more gradual changing of the guard in which the outgoing leader relinquishes some of the day-to-day duties as they segue into more of an external spokesperson role and narrow their focus to one or two strategic priorities.
A more extended transition also allows the Board time to observe how existing staff members step up into more challenging roles, enabling closer consideration of their potential as internal candidates. As outgoing leader, you should take this opportunity to serve as a mentor and provide honest feedback and candid analysis of their qualifications and fit.
Fear of Being a “Lame Duck”
Fostering a positive culture—especially among staff members who may be interested in being considered as an internal candidate for the position—is a key focus for you right now. Potential internal candidates must understand that you are there to support them with honest feedback and that, as a non-voting advisor to the search committee, you will share with the Board your impressions and estimation of their capabilities.
It is also important to communicate honestly with the entire staff, acknowledging that transition is hard—for you, for them and for the entire organization. Take every opportunity to ameliorate the anxiety staff members may be feeling about shifting to new leadership. It is important for you to share the general timeline and process with them so that they are prepared for how the transition will unfold and how it may impact them. When staff members understand the process, they can trust it more readily and focus on their work.
Funding the Transition Process
An executive transition does have costs that are not typically included in an operating budget—both direct costs associated with the search process and indirect costs associated with time spent onboarding the new leader. There are usually also retirement recognition events and welcome/introductory celebrations. Your organization may need to secure private contributions to support this critical process, especially from the Board and those closest to the organization. The asks for this type of support should be made in-person and ideally one-on-one; this is not a mass solicitation. In most circumstances, this should be a Board-driven fundraising effort.
The Search Process
Once the decision to retire has been made, the communication plan has been executed and the search committee has been formed, it is time to begin the search.
Most organizations poised to undergo a leadership change engage an outside search/consulting firm with experience in executive transitions to facilitate the process. Such an arrangement helps provide a strategic framework to the process and supports the Board and search committee in navigating the necessary steps, including:
What’s My Role?
As the outgoing leader, you will not formally serve on the search committee or actively participate in the interview process. Instead, you will share your insights and contribute to the creation of the position profile and job description for the new leader based on the priorities established in the updated strategic plan. You will help recruit the search committee and will use your professional network to share the posting and solicit applicants. You will also offer thoughts on candidates throughout the screening and interview process and support the search committee in making their final recommendation to the Board. But your most important role is really twofold:
Your relationships with donors, community and civic leaders, politicians and other key stakeholders have been built and nurtured over many years and have served the organization well. Care must now be taken when delivering the news of the impending change. Your management of these relationships through this transition relies on timely personal outreach and engagement. You will also serve as an instrumental connector to these individuals once the new leader is selected and brought on board.
Just as important as this external activity, your internal communication with staff is key to setting the tone and allaying concerns caused by the uncertainty of the situation. It is important that the staff understands the timeline and how the search process is expected to unfold. You or a representative of the search committee should provide regular updates—at least on a monthly basis—summarizing the status of the search and any changes to the timeline. This will help the staff members manage their expectations and remain committed to their roles in contributing to the organization’s success.
Time to Pivot
As the search process draws to a close and planning is underway for the public announcement, the organization will need to develop a hands-off strategy to ensure a smooth entry for the new leader. With Board and staff input as appropriate, a well defined and planned schedule for the new incoming leader should be developed for the first week, detailing key introductions and meetings as part of the onboarding process. You will likely be asked by the Board to set aside time with the new leader to share your perspective and historical knowledge of the organization. The new leader will also need to have time meeting and getting up to speed with the management team and cycling through each department to meet staff members and gain an understanding of the systems in place. Your organization may also plan a welcoming event at which major donors, community leaders and politicians are invited to meet your organization’s new leader.
The Board may seek your input in developing a document that lays out specific one-month, three-month, six-month and one-year strategic objectives and performance expectations for the new leader. Tied to the strategic plan, this document will provide an actionable guide through the first year and establish milestones for performance evaluations.
Assuming there has been effective communication with staff members and key stakeholders from the announcement of retirement through the search process, the outgoing leader should remain onsite for no more than a week or two after the start date to help orient the incoming leader and make key introductions.
Your work here is complete, and you will enter retirement knowing you have left your organization in good hands.
Just as your organization requires time to go through a leadership transition process, you will require time to transition from your professional life as an active executive leader to an altogether different role in retirement. Having a year or so to pivot from executive leader in a gradual process as you shift both your focus and mindset from day-to-day issues to bigger-picture thinking helps to start shaping a new reality for your organization and for yourself. And that is just another solid reason to be proactive in creating a timeline and plan for your approach to retirement.
In this transition phase, you can shift a bit from active leader to more of a mentor role as you help position and develop internal candidates—all the while knowing that you are preparing your organization to meet the future head on.