Living the Soaps: Recognizing the Subjective Factor in Executive Succession

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Editors’ Note: One of the more interesting benefits of being an organizational development consultant is the stories you accumulate. They are all full of intentional and unintentional legacies, intrigue, relationship issues, passion, and complexity—like soap operas. This is the stuff of which our organizations are made. When you work with an organization while it is undergoing or wants to undergo a major transition, a good piece of the work is helping the system to understand itself and its position in the world in order to make considered choices out of that understanding. Research findings referred to in the article by Hinden and Hull (page 24) reinforce the fact that transitions are generally more successful when they are grounded in holistic organizational development work. In this article Ted Ford Webb, a well-known figure in the field of nonprofit executive search, brings to life this important point, beginning with a set of stories about the complexities in executive transitions.


A family planning organization prospered under the long tenure of its outgoing president. Her effectiveness as a powerful spokesperson, advocate, and fundraiser transformed the organization from being affiliate-based and decentralized to a more uniform, centrally controlled franchise.
With her departure, the national office staff aspired to continue its dominance and the board of directors, which had been largely controlled by the president, expressed its desire for more board-centered leadership. The affiliates sought a return to the varied, grassroots, affiliate-based approach of the past. In addition, there were critical strategic issues pressing on the organization. Should they continue their primary emphasis on reproductive rights advocacy, or should they seek to define themselves as a broad-based health care program for women?
At the time of the search, the board, the affiliates and other interests had strongly held opinions on these critical questions, with little consensus.


A small, economic justice advocacy organization grew successfully under the founder’s effective leadership. His expertise on the issues made him a leading spokesperson in media and public policy forums. His team-building style encouraged rigorous debate and give-and-take within the organization. The founding board members had a regular presence in the organization, and participated as equals with staff on internal projects and committees. Conflict among staff and board was minimal, due largely to the collaborative style and skill of the founder.
When drafting the job description for the next executive director, the board began to wonder how to diagram the relationships and accountabilities among staff and board, and whether the new executive director was likely to have the moral and intellectual authority of the founder that made it possible to operate with so little hierarchy.


A child welfare organization with a long tradition of service and commitment to children had a series of three-to-five-year term executive directors. While nothing seemed wrong outwardly, the organization presented difficult governance challenges. Board members regularly introduced confusing and contradictory expectations. Some established relationships with staff members in which they acted as managers or advocates within the organization for their favorite part of the program. Some considered themselves CEOs and gave direct orders to staff, while others played a more facilitative role at the policy level. Executive directors, who had been hired mostly for their skills in program and operations, generally reacted by “working” the board—developing relationships one at a time with board members in a piecemeal effort to sustain majority support.
Faced with external pressures for better performance and accountability, the board sought an executive director who would lead the organization to national prominence. Given the culture and approach of the board, would it be able to attract candidates who could do this?


A Fortune 500 company had industry-leading profitability and paid uninterrupted dividends throughout the tenure of its retiring CEO. The CEO had built a powerful team of executives and the company grew through acquisitions, technological and workforce innovations, and strategic purchasing. The team culture was one of demanding standards. The board, uniformly pleased with the company’s performance, had been hands-off.
The board realized the next CEO would face a powerful team of executives who exhibited disdain for the regulators who set rates, had taken an aggressive approach in rate filings, and had also alienated many industrial customers. The executive team, which had mostly had its way with the board, aggressively demanded a CEO who would fit with their philosophy and approach. At the time of the search, regulators proposed a rate increase that would put an end to the high dividends and likely result in an immediate downgrade of the company’s Wall Street rating. Legal counsel thought the company would likely lose any rate lawsuit. The board was not close to these issues.
Does the board select a CEO who concurs with the aggressive and litigious strategy of the executive team, or does it modify the company’s business strategy, and risk undoing a high risk/high return plan and possibly losing its senior management team?

In each of these stories, internal situations underlying the search came to light in early dialogue with board and staff members. Inevitably, more complexity, conflict, and contradiction exist than are revealed by formal job descriptions and by-the-(human resources)-book recruiting processes. Ultimately, the new executive director will confront (or be undone by) this complexity and contradiction.
Nonprofit, corporate, and government organizations alike are challenged by the kinds of politics illustrated in these examples. A transition process that takes these politics into account is powerful and effective in any organization or discipline. We know, because we have applied this precept consistently and successfully in all of them. Conversely, in our experience, organizations that don’t address these politics will continue to struggle with them, but less effectively, after they have selected a new leader.
It’s often difficult and uncomfortable for boards to acknowledge internal politics and personalities, but it is helpful to recognize that the issues never go away with the mere insertion of a new personality. Boards that use a search to understand the complexities of their organizations, and share this understanding with candidates, take a crucial opportunity to clarify direction, among themselves and with their candidates.
In the above examples, as each board explained the organization’s challenges to the candidates, the board exhibited its readiness to engage on the critical issues as well as its capacity to work in partnership with the executive director. Testing the candidate’s ability to engage constructively on volatile, difficult matters within the organization (or board) in the relative privacy of the search process was also a superb technique for evaluating a key criterion for successful leadership.
At a more subtle level, the board’s gesture of directness and truthfulness on the issues, in turn insisting on candor and truthfulness from candidates, laid the foundation for a successful relationship with the executive director. A relationship of trust and integrity, which all would agree is essential, was begun in the selection process, not after the person was hired.


Boards and staffs tend to be passionate about avoiding old “mistakes.” An executive transition when an organization is unhappy with the current state of affairs often drives it to seek an apparent quick fix to resolve the pain and take care of the “problem.” Without a complete understanding of how the whole system works, this can lead to a seesawing effect and rapid repeat transitions or a general lack of focused progress.
We recently recruited the president of a large university. The outgoing president had been successful in leading the university’s growth, though Machiavellian in his tactics. He had been careful to limit the autonomy and authority of his provost and senior managers, manipulated the faculty, and shared limited information with the board. The university’s growth had enabled him to evade each group’s percolating issues.
With his departure, all were passionate about correcting what he had done to them. The board wanted to maintain the pace of fundraising but were concerned about chronically weak managerial leadership; the faculty, understandably angry, insisted the next president be scholarly—“one of theirs, for a change.” Each group had good reasons to feel righteous about their needs. Each group had their (righteous, and contradictory) definitions of the most desirable primary skill and orientation of the next president—builder, fundraiser, manager, scholar.
Two of the most serious mistakes a board can make are: (1) to opt for the opposite of a leader who is seen as having failed, in some way; or (2), if there is something about the current leader that is highly valued, to try to replicate it. For instance, our client might have selected another fundraising-focused president. If the faculty’s concerns were not recognized, discontent would build. The new president—who knows he/she has been chosen by the board for his/her fundraising skills—might tend to discount other portions of the job as less important or might not have the skills or orientation to work with them, worsening the situation considerably.
In this case, board members, faculty, administrators, and alumni, on reflection, recognized that their circumstances were a logical outgrowth of the leadership technique of the outgoing president—even as they celebrated his notable success and highly skilled performance in leading the university to growth and prosperity. In examining their discontents openly, all parties concluded that most leadership styles have their upsides and downsides and that what they needed to look for was balance; then they were able to come to terms in selecting the next president.
There is also something else, perhaps less obvious, which makes this approach very effective. For a board or a board/staff search committee, coming together and acknowledging hard felt issues and differences of opinion among themselves, and then sharing the burden of constructively addressing those issues with the candidates, can be a cleansing and cathartic act.
Further, the effect of this approach is to introduce into the dialogue the larger context within which the chief executive will operate. Given this dialogue, the president/fundraiser might commit to empowering a strong provost and executive vice president to provide managerial leadership and stronger faculty engagement; alternatively the president/manager might support a strong vice president for development and a board with enhanced fundraising capacity. It is better for the board to have an opportunity to examine the various models while still comparing candidates, one of whom will be selected to act on his/her recommendations.


A well-developed search strategy defines the job as the challenge and invites a full array of potential solutions (candidates).
In our search for the president, we reached out to people most likely to have the skills and knowledge necessary to negotiate this challenge—sitting university presidents, a military commander, a former governor, a noted fundraiser, a university vice president for administration, an eminent scholar and researcher, a provost. The contrast in their analysis and approaches informed the choices. Ultimately, the successful candidate offered the best solution to address the complexity and contradiction (and opportunity) inherent in the position. The board made a better decision by virtue of being able to draw from a variety of approaches.


The system dynamics in these situations are such that a strong president is often followed by a weak president. Why? The field of stronger (potential) candidates, typically sitting presidents in other universities, will recognize when the organization is not reconciling tensions and will decline candidacy. The weaker field—those who do not understand these dynamics, or who are prepared to take their chances in order to rise to the presidency—will apply. By definition, they are less well equipped to reconcile these tensions, so they tend to have a short, unhappy tenure, and, in a sense, their failure clears the way for the next president to be successful. That’s how it usually works.
In this instance our client, the board, recognized they had to resolve their issues. This university was operating in a tremendously competitive environment, and it needed a strong president to follow a strong president. To every candidate we said, in effect, “Please come and work with us to find a solution.”
The honesty of this approach had a potent effect. A number of sitting university presidents became candidates, and stated quite clearly that they would not have, had we not been clear about our resolve to address these issues.
This medium is the message, and any overture to a candidate that does not acknowledge the elephant in the room implies that the organization is not going to engage on these problems. The wiser candidates will see that, if not initially, then eventually. (If they don’t, they are not the wiser candidates.)
The circumstances I have described are particularly transparent in a university president search, where everyone has an opinion and readily shares it through the grapevine. But insights of this nature are generally knowable in almost any chief executive search.


The instinct of organizations, and boards, is to avoid that which causes the most discomfort, even when it is vital to success. We have found a consistent pattern over the course of hundreds of executive director searches in the nonprofit and public sectors, and with publicly held and private companies. It is the nature of organizations to produce contradictions, and it is the obligation of boards to address them.
Realize that experienced leaders in any field recognize there are challenges in every organization, and generally have a good idea of what they can be. If they are close to the operations of a given organization, they often have an exact sense of the issues. They are not shocked to learn that these issues are present.
In our experience, candidates are only shocked when an organization has used the executive transition to step back, reflect, and analyze themselves. As experienced leaders, they have come to expect a formal, ceremonial selection process driven by a traditional, candidate-strengths-and-weaknesses approach. As candidates they expect to struggle to detect the underlying truth of the situation, and, in the end, make a leap of faith to accept a position—and only then discover what is really going on.
As for those candidates who are turned off by this candor and by being tested on their ability to address the situation—they are the wrong candidates for the job anyway!
Conducting the search based on what is “really going on” absolutely changes the paradigm. The result is to attract more thoughtful candidates, to draw out their ability to address the real challenges of the position, and to produce a common mandate for the executive director and the board.


Ted Ford Webb is a principal at Ford Webb Associates in Concord, Massachusetts (www.fordwebb.com). His firm has recruited hundreds of national and local nonprofit chief executives, and executives in the business and governmental sectors.