By Rick Biddle
In our recent article, Are You Ready for the Next Evolution, we first introduced Bigger. Better. Faster. (BBF). In that article, we delivered an inspirational call to action and provided some implementable examples of changes zoos, aquariums museums and your institution can make to enhance your relevance in this ever-changing world. Given the strong, positive response we received to those concepts, we’ve decided to launch the BBF Chronicles. In this second installment, we will dive a little deeper and explain exactly what Bigger. Better. Faster. looks like and why we believe it is a way of thinking leaders should embrace.BBF is a risk-taking, impact-making, soul-stirring, mind-whirring philosophy that encourages bold leadership to:
To quote Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Bigger. Better. Faster. provides a framework to do just that.
BiggerBigger represents a fundamental, comprehensive commitment to making a greater impact that effects noticeable changes in behavior. Growing your collection, expanding your physical space or broadening your mission can help you become larger. However, these options do not necessarily get at the heart of what Bigger is really about unless they also create measurable change.
Reflections of your Bigger initiatives could include:
With consistent messaging, a captivating narrative and a call to action, an organization can create an overarching and truly meaningful guest experience that transcends the in-person visit, makes a lasting impact and advances the institution’s mission at the same time.
FasterFaster embodies a proactive spirit, anticipating what’s next and meeting a demand before the visitor even realizes it’s a possibility. Technology—using apps to streamline food and ticket ordering or to supplement a pre- or post-Zoo visit with fun, engaging “sustainability hero” games—undoubtedly plays a huge role in Faster. Faster involves being nimble, embracing change, and taking informed, calculated risks to provide guests with something new and different before it’s available anywhere else.
To be Faster, leadership must be comfortable taking the first steps—being alone out front with something that has not yet been proven, where the risks are real, but the potential is vast. It may be necessary to educate the Board and convince them that it is worth taking a risk to pursue more dynamic and innovative guest and animal experiences while promoting the larger conservation message. In the end, Faster can also be smarter; taking a proactive lead, rather than playing catch up, often proves much less costly in terms of time, money and stress than reactionary crisis management.
At its core, the BBF philosophy encourages you to choose your own adventure. It pushes you to decide how you want to evolve and puts in your own hands the awesome power and responsibility to determine your destiny, to decide for yourself what your impact will be moving forward. The choice is yours to make.
By Rick Biddle
Bigger. Better. Faster.
For those of us leading visitor-based cultural institutions, these words often spawn dread in the pit of our stomachs from the sense of unyielding pressure to do more, deliver more, achieve more. Striving to meet the never-ceasing demands from an audience wooed by ever-increasing competition for their attention can feel a lot like being a hamster on a wheel that steadily increases its speed. But what if instead of viewing Bigger. Better. Faster. as an onerous mandate, we took this mantra for what it really is: an advantageous opportunity to adopt a new way of thinking to stay ahead of the next evolution?
Embracing Bigger. Better. Faster. will help organizations—not only visitor-based cultural institutions but all sectors—maintain a vital sense of relevance to their audiences. By employing new, innovative thinking that effectively addresses the needs and interests of audiences (Better), and by doing so more expeditiously and proactively (Faster), organizations can make a powerful impact on their audiences and even the general public (Bigger).
Many of our clients at Schultz & Williams are strong, thriving organizations doing critically important work across the social services, education, healthcare, conservation and cultural attractions sectors. In many cases, they have managed to do this in the face of tremendous evolution over the last several decades. Some have even managed to find ways to adapt and thrive in industries that are seemingly in constant flux and/or impacted by weather and other circumstances beyond their control.
The challenge and opportunity that most of our clients face is how to identify, anticipate, prepare for and ultimately navigate the next evolution. These changes—small and large, personal and political, customer-facing and in-house—challenge organizations to remain relevant not only to survive, but to thrive and ensure they are providing the highest quality programs and services to meet the ever-changing needs and interests of their core audiences.
Although we might not fully understand or know what the next evolution will entail or what “relevance” means for our clients/guests, it is critical that organizations invest in new thinking and develop new ways of executing their missions that establish what “relevance” means for them. The most successful organizations will not wait for others to take this step. They will lead the effort to proactively define their futures, occupying the forefront of the next evolution rather than responding reactively and following the trends set by others.
What does this all mean for the cultural attractions sector, specifically for our zoo and aquarium clients? Zoos and aquariums must invest the time and resources in new thinking and embrace new opportunities in order to both lead and maintain their relevance. Bigger. Better. Faster. must serve as a rallying cry to inspire new thinking and embolden decisive action in this effort. Zoos and aquariums must move forward with the confidence to depart from the more traditional and established norms while also responding to larger shifts in how audiences engage with their environments by considering the following ideas:
The next evolution is knocking at the door.
Are you ready?
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.
Jill Macauley & Eileen Hillman
Most leaders of nonprofit organizations would agree that there are never enough hours in the day to get their work done. And so the idea of committing a significant amount of time, money and energy to developing a strategic plan is often regarded, at best, as a necessary evil. This is even more so the case for organizations that begrudgingly complete a plan only to satisfy the Board, and then simply stash the plan on a bookshelf to gather dust. With more and more accrediting bodies like the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) requiring a strategic plan for full approval, creating a strategic plan may be viewed as just another hurdle to jump. This type of mindset and approach to strategic planning is really too bad—such a missed opportunity and a waste of resources!
From Schultz &Williams’s (S&W) experience with our clients, developing a strategic plan provides a comprehensive guide for an organization to follow that’s based on well-considered goals and priorities.
But that’s not all; we have found that the very process of developing a plan provides valuable opportunities for an organization to share institutional knowledge, build collegial relationships, identify strong staff skills, and set ambitious goals that are based on staff input and have the staff’s buy-in.
A Strategic Plan at Work: The Birmingham Zoo
To test our thinking about the value and usefulness of strategic plans, we decided to check in with the Birmingham Zoo about a year after the completion of their three-year strategic plan.
One interesting aspect of this project was that the Birmingham Zoo undertook this critical process with the knowledge that Dr. Bill Foster, its long-time president and CEO, would be retiring in the near future. Chris Pfefferkorn, who was senior vice president at the time, was ultimately named Dr. Foster’s successor. Chris’s direct and active involvement throughout the entire strategic planning process helped to ensure a smooth and focused leadership transition.
An Actionable Guide
The most important feature of the strategic plan for the Birmingham Zoo is that the plan is actionable. It is a living, actively utilized and regularly updated plan that guides decision-making and promotes accountability across the organization.
Not only has the plan changed the way the Zoo approaches opportunities and manages its direction, it has also really transformed the staff’s ability to think strategically for the better.
Chris and the Birmingham Zoo are utilizing their strategic plan on a regular basis as:
• A Hiring/HR Tool
The Board utilized the strategic plan in developing the new contract for Chris. They set the benchmark goals for the new president and CEO against the priorities established in the strategic plan, which were developed with the full involvement and endorsement of Chris and the staff.
The staff managers are working with the human resources team to utilize the strategic plan’s goals and objectives as a framework for performance reviews. It is very important at the Birmingham Zoo that each person, no matter the department, understands they all have a role to play in achieving every one of the strategic goals.
• A Quarterly Management Tool
The staff digs deeper into the plan every three months and breaks up the goals and priorities into quarterly segments. Based on emerging situations or time constraints, the staff may adjust the quarterly goals in the short-term to ensure long-term success.
“The strategic plan is utterly worthless if the goals are not tied to specific actions that are achievable in the timeframe that is established.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo
• A Board Communication Tool
Chris uses the strategic plan and the resultant quarterly goals as the framework for his updates to the Board and expects his senior leadership team to remain accountable for their departments’ progress against the goals mandated in the strategic plan. This system provides quantifiable reporting on current status, thus allowing the Board to stay engaged with the strategic issues facing the Zoo.
• A Focusing Tool
When new ideas are proposed, the leadership team assesses them based on how they relate to the priorities established in the strategic plan, helping to maintain focus and minimize distraction.
“We like to encourage staff participation in generating new ideas, and everyone knows that suggestions must relate to the plan and advance one of our stated goals. This helps us keep our eyes on the prize and continually move forward.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo
• A Transition Tool
The strategic plan was particularly useful for Chris as the new president and CEO. The existence of the plan and the process that led to its creation enabled Chris to hit the ground running as the new director. Even though the plan is fluid and dynamic, it provided the overall direction and necessary steps for maintaining focus, building on momentum, and establishing clear priorities—incredibly important any time, but especially during a leadership transition.
“I was able to jump right in after the leadership change with full confidence that the entire staff was on board with the Zoo’s strategic direction and priorities and was actively engaged in making it happen.” —Chris Pfefferkorn, President & CEO, Birmingham Zoo
The Benefits of the Planning Process
While the time, energy and resources involved in developing a strategic plan may seem daunting at first, the Birmingham Zoo found that making the process as inclusive as possible drew the entire organization together in pursuit of shared goals. Throughout the planning process, the staff was actively involved and had a voice in the creation of priorities and strategies. The staff also contributed to defining the timeline based on personal knowledge of the work required. This kind of buy-in leads to an engaged and motivated staff with a full understanding of the role it plays in achieving the organization’s goals.
Broader Lessons from Birmingham Zoo’s Experience
One key lesson learned from our work with Chris and the Birmingham Zoo that holds true for all nonprofit organizations is the importance of setting the stage from the outset. It is imperative that the entire staff understands what a strategic plan is, how it will be used, and what it means for the organization. Upfront education and discussion should set the tone for the entire strategic planning process. Whether by an outside consultant or existing internal leadership, attention must be paid to explaining the planning process and the staff’s role.
Additionally, all staff members must be involved in the process at some point along the way. Bringing together people from different areas of an organization—for example, from education, marketing, operations and development—can inject new energy into the planning process with a diversity of thinking and perspectives represented and heard. This kind of inclusivity also ensures realistic thinking in terms of what it takes to get things done.
In the end, a confident and empowered leader can use the strategic plan to provide direction, focus and benchmarks for an engaged staff and promote accountability across the organization, starting at the top.
Keys to Success
• Engage in upfront education with the entire staff on the nature and purpose of strategic planning and how the process works.
• Keep the strategic plan top-of-mind during staff meetings and make sure everyone has access to it.
• Use the strategic plan as a framework to create job descriptions, performance evaluations and Board reports.
• Communicate achievement of goals as well as updates and alterations to the plan to the staff.
To provide a safe haven for 17 African elephants, the Dallas Zoo this year demonstrated impressive leadership and collaboration with conservation officials in Swaziland, Southern Africa, and with two other accredited U.S. facilities. The elephants had destroyed trees and other vegetation in the managed parks where they lived, making the land uninhabitable for more critically endangered rhinos.
As a result, Swaziland managers planned to kill the elephants in order to focus on rhino conservation. Through a collaborative conservation effort, the elephants were flown instead to the U.S. aboard a chartered 747 jet in a carefully planned operation, arriving on March 11, 2016.
All three U.S. partner zoos—Dallas Zoo; Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE.; and Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, KS.—have expansive new habitats that set the standard for an advanced way of managing elephants in human care, allowing for socialization, herd behavior and extensive walking. Public support for the rescue has been overwhelming, given the critical situation in the animals’ native land. African elephants face many threats, ranging from human encroachment on their habitat to extreme poaching, which claims the lives of nearly 100 elephants every day.
S&W is incredibly proud to partner with clients that are doing extraordinary mission-driven work. Our clients demonstrate outstanding leadership within their respective fields. In celebration of Thanksgiving, S&W is grateful for the many ways our clients make the world a better place for all—people, animals and our planet—through conservation efforts.
For nonprofit organizations, there is perhaps no more exciting, emotional and nerve-wracking time than the transition from start-up mode to full flight. This is when an organization shifts away from the largely personality-driven stage that is fueled by the founder’s blood, sweat and tears and moves into a more formal stage. The acknowledgement that a nonprofit—its mission, impact and potential legacy—is much bigger than any one individual presents a significant opportunity for transformation.
But in most cases, this doesn’t just happen. It’s not easy to admit that you are, in fact, dispensable. It takes a founder who thoughtfully considers the situation, assesses his/her role and then gracefully enables the organization to fully embrace a new beginning. Gathering the courage and humility to step aside, a founder can make the necessary space for a new leader to succeed with the collective support of a fully empowered and engaged Board.
For one inspiring example of how a founder is effectively navigating this tricky terrain, see the TedxTalk from Carrie Maria, founder of Monster Milers, a shelter dog running club and rescue organization.
Carrie realized that for Monster Milers to thrive, it needed a more robust organization and a layered governance structure, which would require some careful planning. So in September of 2016, Monster Milers engaged Schultz & Williams to assist with governance planning. We were pleased to guide them through this six-month process of “conscious uncoupling”—a purposeful approach to positioning Monster Milers to flourish with redefined leadership roles.
Through this process, a small volunteer task force worked with Carrie to formalize the Board structure by updating its by-laws, increasing the number of Board members from two to nine and adding clear role descriptions for the Board’s officers and members. The task force focused on two important thoughts: (1) we want to do this transition right, taking the necessary time to think things through, and (2) we want to ensure that the members of the Board are capable and committed to the mission.
Carrie arrived at this hard decision through self-reflection and a realistic acknowledgement of her limits. However, for many founders, knowing when to let go is not instinctual. Nonprofits often find themselves trying to keep things together, meet commitments and maintain the status quo. But they must raise this question: “Is the status quo good enough?” Determining the answer to that question can lead the founder and the Board to a shared understanding, ultimately positioning the organization to unleash its full potential.
As any good basketball player knows, the key to a successful pivot is planting one foot on the floor while shifting position with the other. When a player stops dribbling, s/he often needs to pivot in order to take a shot or make a pass. If the player moves that pivot foot, it’s a violation known as traveling, and it results in a turnover. What has happened is: The player has stopped dribbling without having a plan for what to do next, and that’s bad for the player and bad for the team.
Why all this basketball talk? A December 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review The Secrets of Great CEO Selection by Ram Charan, a business consultant, speaker and writer, discusses how important it is for an organization’s Board to define the pivot prior to screening candidates for a leadership position. In other words, the Board needs to come to consensus before they undertake an executive search, regarding the capabilities they require in a new leader who will take the organization where it wants it to go. Identifying necessary capabilities in a potential new leader requires a collectively held understanding of an organization’s mission, current status and future goals.
At this point, my brain is tingling because this sounds very much like a call for strategic planning – often under-utilized in today’s nonprofit world. We believe that a strategic plan, when developed with a keen desire to reflect an organization’s essential purpose and greatest potential, captures the power of a unified Board and staff, plotting out a path for success.
Not only that, a strategic plan plays a key role for organizations experiencing leadership transition—whether planned or unplanned. All of the succession planning in the world won’t help an organization that doesn’t know what it is and where it wants to go.
We at Schultz & Williams have been working with the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA) since 2015, as they engaged in a planning process to develop a strategic roadmap and a management action plan. Near the end of the planning process, SRHA’s executive director left for a new opportunity, and the organization then began the search for a new leader. As executors of the search process for SRHA, our work benefited from SRHA’s foresight in having prepared a dynamic strategic plan that reflected the organization’s mission, vision and values. The plan established where they were and their priorities for the future. Their mission was clear and their commitment to it had been nurtured and enlivened through the planning process. They were in a prime position to pivot confidently with the selection of a new leader, as the Board felt a sense of comfort and clarity that overcame any unsettling feeling that a transition naturally brings.
Our strategic plan provided us with a strong advantage going into an executive search. We were able to attract a high caliber of candidates who all spoke highly of the benefits of knowing our goals at the time of applying for the position, and the Search Committee was able to zero in on exactly the key attributes we will need in a successful candidate in order to achieve our plan over the foreseeable future.
Engaging in an executive search process to recruit new leadership is a daunting task. Suddenly, the members of a Board of Directors find themselves responsible for shaping their organization’s future through their selection of a new leader—a decision that can have an impact for the next decade or more. Making the best decision requires the Board to fully understand the day-to-day responsibilities of the CEO/Director position. The Board must also find a new chief with the skills necessary for the strategic leadership of the organization and the foresight to navigate changes within the industry.
Schultz & Williams (S&W) has worked with zoos, aquariums and other cultural organizations, supporting their efforts to hire new, dynamic leadership, whether a new CEO/Director or a new member of the C-suite staff. This year, we worked with the leadership of three zoos—the Minnesota Zoo, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee and Niabi Zoo (Illinois)—supporting them as they recruited their next generation of leaders.
During each of these searches, S&W worked with the Boards and other volunteer leadership of these organizations to help them understand what qualities and skills are required in a leader and to define what they’re looking for in that individual. In some cases, we partnered with a local search firm to provide the “zoo lens,” ensuring that the process took into account the unique skills and nuances of the zoo and aquarium industry. We used our first-hand knowledge of the pool of qualified C-suite candidates to ensure that our clients’ needs aligned with the skill set and passion of the potential candidates, helping to secure highly qualified candidates who exceeded the expectations of our clients.
Although Schultz & Williams is not a search firm, we’re dedicated to leveraging our long-term experience to support, in these cases, the zoo and aquarium industry’s shift to a new generation of leadership. Our relationships with Boards is instrumental in helping organizations evaluate when and whether to engage a search firm and whether the search process would be best served by a local or national firm.
Working in close partnership with our clients, we’re also able to instill in them the confidence they need to engage in a thorough and thoughtful search process. Together we’re able to identify a robust pool of qualified candidates with the knowledge, leadership, passion and vision to exceed industry standards and effectively address the evolving needs of today’s nonprofits.
At a recent client meeting, a Board member said, “It appears that S&W is approaching this strategic planning process as if we have a blank canvas. That worries me, as I feel we have to be realistic about what we can achieve.”
Reflecting on this comment, we realize that many of our clients may experience that same anxiety—they are excited for the opportunity to think about the untapped potential of their organization, yet slightly panicked about how to do any more than they are doing today.
Our response to that Board member had four key points: