Successful Successions: Executive Transitions that Worked

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MagisJaponica MagisJaponica /

Succession from one generation of leadership to the next is a period of opportunity and risk. Common sense, an inclusive listening tour, frank dialogue that invites all views within the board and from other key players, and a robust analysis of what the organization needs going forward are essential ingredients for this process.

But also be aware that many challenging and critical needs can be in plain sight and still go unaddressed. Why? Because over time, boards and their executive leadership can settle on an equilibrium—accepting or implicitly agreeing to work around fundamental tensions and difficulties, like the frog in a slowly heating pan of water. Sadly, these unspoken challenges can substantially undermine the vision of the organization and the hopeful rhetoric of the search. If they are not addressed in the succession process, they will still be present when the new team is in place. Having missed the opportunity to vet them, they will be that much more entrenched.

Examples of these unspoken challenges are revealed in these stories of our experience recruiting chief executives and their successors for three different organizations. In the first two examples, there was a span of about eight years between the searches. In the third example, it was less than two years, for reasons that are explained. The contrast in what was needed the first and second times around is striking.

These are mostly happy stories. In each case, our client was prepared for an unvarnished look at the circumstances that would likely shape the next chief executive’s tenure. As they signaled that readiness and welcomed a frank give-and-take during the recruiting process, strong candidates stepped forward. Before hiring the new CEO, they were able to establish a common understanding of the challenges they would face together. Those foundations paid dividends in the performance of the organization and the chief executive, sooner or—as shown in the third example—later.


Leveraging a unified board and a favorable funding environment.

Eight years ago, we were engaged to recruit the president of a nationally renowned public/private partnership known for innovation, solid research, and an effective community-based service delivery model. The founding president was retiring. She had built a solid foundation and felt it was time for fresh energy and growth. All in all, it was a stable and happy organization. Most of their funding came from government. The board members were in alignment with the political party in power, and the programmatic agenda dovetailed with the ideology of that party. A large board, which shared a common vision of the organization and its strategies, had fully supported the outgoing president and was disposed to continue with this model of governance.

We recruited a strong and vocal advocate. She was highly skilled at promoting the agenda of the organization in public testimony, in the media, and with funders and community leaders. She was active in partisan politics in alliance with the party in power. The board, which shared her philosophy, granted her considerable license to occupy a visible bully pulpit, and she did it well. The organization prospered and grew during most of her eight-year term. Innovative programming based on solid research and development and growth marked her tenure.

More recently, the party in power, and the ideology and public policy that shaped this organization’s funding, changed. Board members are appointed by elected officials, and a number of new board members were appointed by the party newly in power. What had been a monolithic board was suddenly no longer so, and the political activism of the president was suddenly a liability. The president retired, and we were engaged to find her successor.

We look back on this placement as a success. The person we recruited was well matched to the needs of the organization—until she wasn’t.

Adapting to partisan conflict and an unfavorable funding environment

When we were invited back eight years later, we found a very different set of circumstances. There was growing tension between newly appointed and long-term board members. Long-term board members and the outgoing president were angry over what they felt were inappropriate behaviors from the new board leadership. The new board leaders wanted to be fully involved in setting the board agenda, no longer just accepting the agenda proposed by the president. These new board members were meeting with staff to learn about the organization and were attending conferences and public sessions. Previous board leaders had not been active in this manner, and some people saw this activism as crossing a boundary into the staff role.

The new board leaders supported the vision and mission of the organization. They were intent on protecting and growing the programs, but they wanted to govern in a different way. Depending on whom you spoke with, the new board members were destroying a highly effective system of (staff driven) governance, or they were promoting a rich, board-level strategic and policy governance model that would strengthen the organization’s ability to operate in a more partisan political environment.

Our judgment was that the board needed to contend with the issue of board governance as a precursor to and within the chief executive search. Were the new board members overreaching, or were they promoting a different, legitimate approach to board governance? If legitimate, was the new approach the best for the times? The dialogue we led resulted in a common view that the organization needed to present a bipartisan front, but that dialogue also left some key long-term board members worried that the result would be a weak chief executive, with the new board leadership dominating the organization.

As a part of the recruiting process, we introduced our top candidates to this dynamic, somewhat messy dialogue about board governance. Our experience is that hiding issues of this nature imbues them with a power and influence that is harmful and counterproductive. And while some experienced this debate as being about personalities and personal agendas, these issues, in their impact, were about organizational performance and governance.

This topic, and many others like it, has a great deal to do with defining the assignment for the next chief executive. We encouraged open give-and-take between board members on both sides of the issue with our top candidates. How would they work with the board? What would they, as candidates, want to hear from parties on both sides of the question at hand, and what would their advice be? How would they draw the line between the board role and the chief executive/staff role?

The successful candidate had previously worked effectively with engaged, policy-making boards. She favored a richer and deeper dialogue with the board, but she was also very clear about boundaries. Unlike her predecessor, she brought staff into that engagement, broadening their skills and stimulating a more substantive staff/board dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, the organization adopted a new strategy for advocacy, fundraising, and government relations. Where in the past the president was the face of the organization, now a bipartisan coalition of board members, the president, and staff experts would appear together in key forums. In the present circumstance, this was politically and professionally a much stronger strategy for the organization. In the past, opponents could attack the president as a partisan; now they are presented with a bipartisan committee of informed citizens (board members) working in concert with staff experts. This is proving to be a powerful force for growth.

The predecessor was a strong and effective president in her time and circumstances; the successor is a strong and effective president in her time and circumstances.

Educating poor board leadership and adapting to changes in funding and the marketplace.

We were first engaged to recruit the chief executive of a large, historically influential, and well-endowed urban child and family service organization over eight years ago. We discovered that the agency had run through a series of three-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 wherein they acted as managers or advocates within the organization for their favorite programs. Some board chairs considered themselves CEOs and gave direct orders to staff, while others played a more facilitative role. Executive directors, who had been hired primarily 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.

The uneven and unsafe leadership the board presented to the executive director and staff did not lend itself to tracking and adapting to a changing environment. Rather, the focus was on adjusting to and accommodating the internal drama presented by this board. Not surprisingly, the organization was not staying current with major changes in the marketplace. The full census the organization had historically enjoyed in its residential programs was shrinking. The organization had not developed a continuum of care, so many graduates of the residential programs moved on to other organizations for community-based and follow-up support.

What marked this search was the need to confront the boundary-violating behaviors of the board and their impact on the organization’s ability to adapt to a dynamic environment. Some long-term “legacy” board members were of the view that they were the stewards of the organization, and their lengthy service entitled them to guide and even confront staff and weigh in on management and program decisions. Some of these same members were also major donors, which, in part, explained why their overreaching had not been confronted. They had the best of intentions, and they were able to cite a host of bad behaviors and incompetence in staff as justification for their activism.

Our guidance was to agree on the importance of examining uneven staff performance, but also to consider the effect of staff receiving different, sometimes contradictory, directions from the chief executive and board members. Taken together, these were challenges worth introducing into the dialogue with top candidates.

We have learned that hiding these (boundary violating) behaviors gives them a power greater than they deserve. Naming such behaviors and encouraging top candidates and the board to begin a dialogue about how best to address them is a constructive exercise. The successful candidate made the case for investing in a clear management structure and team, for providing the board with complete and timely information, being fully accountable, and also insisting on well-defined boundaries and appropriate board involvement in decision-making.

The person we recruited had a very successful tenure. One reason he was attracted to this opportunity was that the dialogue of the search process demonstrated the willingness of the board to support effective management leadership. He created a strong, well-integrated management team and culture. He helped the board focus on key strategic and policy matters. Under his watch, the organization grew from a $25 million enterprise to an $80 million enterprise through a combination of program development, diversification and acquisitions.


Building on a strong foundation.

When the chief executive we recruited retired eight years later, we stepped back into an organization that had been transformed. The CEO had built a strong management team. They worked together very well. Decision-making was based on thorough review of the data and robust debate. They trusted one another, they encouraged creativity, they learned from their mistakes. The organization had grown and adapted to market demands. Through mergers and internal growth, they were constantly looking for economies of scale and competitive advantage, while paying close attention to the quality of service and caring values. They were early adopters of the Sanctuary Model and it was showing strong results.

The CEO had also “trained” the board. He had kept his commitment to bring solid and timely information to them—good news and bad. He helped them focus on the critical strategic decisions that are best vetted by an informed board. The board truly owned the organization. Everyone understood his or her role and they helped each other stay in their lane.

The tension as we began the second CEO search was in whether and how we could keep this going. And while it might seem counterintuitive and perhaps even perverse, our answer was to narrow the scope of the CEO’s assignment.

The “objective” circumstances were that we had a strong, high-performing, and happy management team and organizational culture. The board was also strong and happy. The board had adopted excellent governance and strategic oversight standards and it wanted to continue to have this type of relationship with another strong and capable chief executive and their team. The organization was prospering. It had finished its growth spurt. The business plan was strong. More growth and change was unlikely. The task ahead was to continue to polish a highly effective program. Status quo, or rather status-quo-plus, was the call to arms.

The perversity of these circumstances is that there was not the opportunity for growth and change that motivates many leaders. At the same time, all were concerned that a maintainer-type chief executive would not motivate the “search for excellence” standard the organization knew it needed to continue.

And while this may seem like “good trouble,” it was a genuine tension in our effort to find the best candidate.

But this is a happy story.

The person we recruited fit just right. She was (and is) a great face for the organization: articulate, a strong communicator, and a passionate advocate. She is an experienced fundraiser. She has strong academic credentials and the ability to understand the complex programmatic and clinical issues that are the bread and butter of the organization’s work. But she was not an experienced big-organization manager like her predecessor. While her instincts were good, she didn’t have the time in service, the hands-on experience, or the gravitas that comes with that.

In retrospect, it may appear that we just figured out what kind of person would fit with the organization’s needs and went out to find that person. But it doesn’t work that way. Our search rhetoric was consistent with what was described above, i.e., we were looking for status-quo-plus. These were truly the “objective” challenges, and we needed to tease them out with candidates in a search process.

Among others, we met with very strong and accomplished executives who were successfully leading other big institutions. Those conversations went flat because they were about change and growth, and we didn’t have that to offer. The match was based on an honest negotiation about the board’s desire for continuity in those parts of the organization that were clearly working. Trust and respect, which may seem like hokey terms, were fundamental to making this work. What we offered the candidate was the following:

“We see that you can be a powerful face for this organization, and we want you out there. We are due for a capital campaign. Work with us to prepare the board and staff for that. You are inheriting a very capable and high performing executive team. While you need to run this organization without our (the board’s) interference, we ask that you embrace this team, at least initially. Count on them to maintain strong performance and account to you. Also, count on us (the board) to not permit ourselves to get between you and them.

Further, with your appointment, we would like to create a small board management committee. We want the committee to work with you and support you quietly, and we want it to be composed of a few experienced managers. We will welcome your suggestions about which members you would like to work with. Our proposal is that you use this committee to review key management questions and decisions that arise in your leadership of the executive team. We hope that through the support of this committee you can climb the learning curve on overall organizational leadership and avoid early mistakes that could interrupt your autonomy as chief executive. We understand that in the final analysis, you need to be in control, so we commit to using this (board management committee) as a safe harbor to achieve that end.”

What mattered here is that we established a frank assessment of the organization’s needs and circumstances from the get-go. As we came to know her as a candidate, and as we were equally frank with her about her possible fit, we had a foundation upon which to build an honest and successful relationship. We celebrated and empowered her leadership, and at the same time built a plan for her learning and her growth in a rigorous (and relatively safe) forum in which to hold her accountable. Needless to say, a lot of mutual trust was needed—but we had built that trust in the process and, again, it paid dividends.

And by the way, this happened eight years ago! She has prospered, as has the agency. We hope she won’t get the eight-year itch, but if she does, we will adapt again!


Change is hard.

About five years ago, we were engaged to recruit the executive director of a prominent anti-slavery organization. The founders were in various stages of departing. The board had been pretty much hands-off, as founder’s boards tend to be. There was a controversial split over two competing agendas within the organization—building programs to demonstrate a viable alternative to culturally embedded slavery practices and confronting supply chain dynamics, or promoting awareness, education, and policy reforms in first world countries.

It was quickly evident that the combination of semi-retired founders, a weak board, and this division was going to be very unattractive to any experienced candidate who had ambition to build the organization. Our advice, which our client accepted, was to first identify a few new board members who had strong subject matter expertise and who were open-minded about the debate over the programmatic agenda. With their arrival, and a pledge within the board that this was a moment for the board to assert strong control over the organization, we began our search.

What became clear over the course of the search was that the agenda to “promote awareness, education, and policy reforms in first world countries” was not viable. A major funder had originally underwritten this initiative, but the efforts to sustain it through (expensive) media and public events were bleeding the organization—its finances, staff and volunteer time, and opportunity costs. However, there were very vocal and aggressive board members (and one of the remaining founders) who were passionate about the need to continue to invest in this media initiative. The new board members, who brought tremendous insight and skills to the conversation, were inclined toward pulling back on the media program. But as new members, and given the passion of the media program advocates, they were not ready to promote a radical solution.

These issues were in the forefront of the search, as they needed to be. We selected an executive director who we felt could do the analysis needed to later decide on a course of action. Over time, she did, and the analysis pointed to what our instincts had suggested: The media program was not viable.

What is hard to capture in this dry rendering is the passion felt on both sides of this issue. There really were two cultures within the organization and board. One was the culture of international development; the other was a Hollywood media culture. One hopes to see strong passion in an organization fighting against overwhelming historical and social forces. However, that same passion turned inward can undo an organization. As they say, the revolution eats its children.

The person we recruited lasted about 18 months. Under her watch, the organization made the difficult choice to do away with the media program. But she was badly beaten up in the process. Some of the issues were of her making, but she was also caught up in a period of bitter and toxic recriminations from those who were aggrieved over this dramatic decision. She left.

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

We were engaged again by this anti-slavery organization. This part of the story is pretty simple. The decision for the organization to focus on changing culturally embedded slavery practices had been made. This focus was based on well-founded research and best practices. The board was united. The staff, absent the media program staff that had left, was united. What we had to offer was unanimity and a body of research and programs already working that represented a tremendous foundation for growth and impact.

Having made the (objective) case for this new focus, and with an organization in alignment to move in this direction, we were presented with a marvelous slate of candidates—very unlike what we had seen in the first round. The person we chose has been just tremendous. Board, staff, and executive director are united in purpose. This organization is on track to achieve its best potential.

I do not see our first search with this group as a failure. (Nor, apparently, did they, as they re-engaged us). In the first search, we called out the right issues and took positive steps to address what needed to be addressed. We found the best candidates from a field that (correctly) looked askance at the issues confounding this organization. We laid a solid foundation for more work to be done to set the organization on the right course. Ultimately, that work bore fruit. But change is hard.

A chief executive transition is a powerful moment for an organization. At its best, it can be the vehicle for a great leap forward. But it is not uncommon in the course of these transitions to find deep fractures and unmovable opposition to change. As was the case here, naming these fractures and encouraging that they be dealt with openly in this process was the means to a better end. In this case, it took time and effort. One consequence was the short and difficult tenure of the person who followed the founder. In the end, we stood on her shoulders. She helped create the setting for strong leadership to follow, for a healthy organizational culture and a unified agenda.


The point.

These examples may seem idiosyncratic. To a degree, they are. However, the universal truth that runs though these and all leadership transitions is the tremendous value of honesty. No candidate, no board, no organization is without challenges and limitations. Celebrating our commitments and our values is the first order of business, but then we must run toward whatever will get in the way of achieving those commitments. Honestly sorting out together how we will overcome these barriers are both the means and the ends to success.

  • Tricia

    A beautifully written essay on the challenges of executive searches in the NPO sector, I appreciate the examples given here.

  • MBrandston

    I applaud Ted Ford Webb’s points in identifying the complexities of finding new executive leadership and the solutions. I can relate to all the situations he presented as both a fundraising consultant and as a trustee of two nonprofits. While likely implied, I believe it is increasingly important to take the time to identify, understand and respect an organization’s culture. Cultural identification and analysis should be conducted in a qualitative, nonjudgmental manner that captures the culture from the very people who created and exist effectively within that culture. When organizations were simple, rote employee surveys or consultants’ prescription-based studies were sufficient. Today’s organizations are complex as are the people within and outside. It is time to embrace the adage: “When a blind person touches an elephant, they get an idea of the elephant based which part they touched.” Perhaps if organizational leaders would be willing to learn what an organization’s culture is in the first place, then these same leaders will have a better understanding of what and how changes are possible.