Failure to Launch: An Executive Transition Reconsidered

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August 25, 2016; Sonoma Index-Tribune

Readers may remember yesterday’s newswire I wrote on the founder who was informed by his board that he was to share leadership with two other co-directors. The decision appears to have since been rescinded, but here is another story of a transition gone a bit sideways.

At the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, CEO Cheryl Johnson tendered her resignation three months ago, effective at year’s end. The board chair, Richard Gantenbein, said at the time that she had “one of the toughest jobs in the Valley. It is grueling, grinding work in a constantly changing marketplace.” In fact, Johnson expressed her longing for work-life balance as a major reason for leaving. But when the search for her replacement began, the board found that no one wanted the job as it was currently structured.

Gantenbein said, “I went back to the board and said, ‘We should really figure out if there is a way to keep her.’ We had accepted her resignation on face value, and we went back to her for a long conversation about what we could do to convince her to change her mind.” Of course, the recent impressive Clinical and Financial Performance Measures ratings from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) would make any board think again.

Johnson doesn’t place responsibility for the intensity of her job entirely at the board’s feet, since she is a “bit of an overachiever.” (The self-built trap.) The board has decided that rather than go forward with the search, it will instead make sure Johnson’s job is sustainable.

“I love what I do,” said Johnson, “and I think we have now figured out a way for me to do it and still have a life.”

“There are a handful of really hard jobs like this in the Valley,” said Gantenbein. “How can we make this job viable over a long period of time?” The current line of thought entails hiring additional staff—in particular, a chief operating officer—an increase in pay and a scaling back of plans.

The beginning of this story is a scenario most of us have seen happen. It is all too common for a board to realize after an executive leaves, completely spent, that the job really required two or three individuals and that they really should have been paying more attention to the growing realm of responsibility and complexity that comes with some leadership positions. The fact that this board realized that they had what they really needed in reach and that new wouldn’t necessarily be better and the fact that the relationships here were still so intact to allow a rethinking of the situation, speaks well of all involved.—Ruth McCambridge