Executive transition is rarely easy for an organization, whether for-profit or nonprofit, and it’s even more difficult when the leader is a “star.” Last month, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the lay chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Stephen Greenberg, had announced that its longtime top professional officer, Malcolm Hoenlein, was planning to step down and “was timing the move to coincide with the search for a new chairman.”
Hoenlein’s 30-plus-year tenure and his great success in building the effectiveness of the organization sets the stage for a challenging period.
Few Jewish leaders have had as much influence over a longer time than Hoenlein, whose group is a coalition of more than 50 Jewish organizations from across the ideological spectrum…While volunteer chairs are selected every two years, Hoenlein is a constant presence and is perceived as a key interlocutor between political leaders and the Jewish community.
Greenberg told the organization’s members that “while Malcolm continues to be a uniquely vital and energetic leader, and an irreplaceable asset, he felt that a transition process should be put in place. Specifically, Malcolm will continue to serve the Conference as he has so effectively for more than three decades, as we seek an executive to assume responsibility for the Conference’s ongoing operations and activities. Malcolm will then focus on external relations as well as plans to structure the Conference for the years ahead.”
With leadership transition now on the table, the Conference faces some important questions. With a professional leader of this stature, who should initiate and manage succession and transition planning? Is this an opportunity to step back and rethink the organization’s mission, strategy, and structure? If it is, how involved should the retiring leader be in that process?
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Hoenlein has a strong opinion and plans to be an integral part of the organization through and beyond his relinquishing his current role. In an interview with the Jewish News Syndicate, he said “the process of finding a new executive to handle the complexities of the position and to get a candidate approved by the diverse conference leaders could take one to two years to implement.”
I want to make sure we will have an orderly transition. I didn’t put 32 years in my life into the Conference to see it not continuing to be successful. I will remain, no matter what and I will continue to play a strong role.
This may be the most comfortable way for the Conference to go forward. It seems to provide stability and minimizes the downsides of hurt feelings and anger, but will it be the most effective in the long term? Viewpoints vary, but Thomas Gilmore, writing in NPQ, pointed out reasons why it may be important for the board to step up and take control, even asking their revered leader to step back, so they can directly deal with a new reality: “A long-tenured leader leads to atrophy of the board’s vitality and increases its dependency, especially when the leader is successful. So, when that leader leaves…a key support to the board is missing as members think about strategic shifts.”
Selecting the organization’s next leader needs to be done alongside a rebuilding of the board’s strength, and this may only be possible if they are in full control of the process. On the other hand, as Jeanne Bell and Thomas Adams recently wrote, the formula changes a lot if attention is paid to sustainable organizational leadership over the longer term. In that case, as is becoming more common, succession becomes less of an event and more a constant building of leadership capacity.
Depending on the circumstances, asking a retiring longtime leader to step back and allow the board to lead might seem risky, but it may be essential to the organization’s ability to move into its next era. How the Conference manages this task will be an interesting story to follow and learn from over the coming months.—Martin Levine