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