While it’s only March, if you’re a staff leader and plan to retire at year’s end, you need to loop your board leadership into what you’re thinking. It is a critical conversation that provides the organization ample time to prepare. The second quarter can be spent preparing, the third quarter in search mode, and the fourth quarter focused on the handoff.
With this in mind, three of the most common questions we receive from departing leaders about their transition are:
- How much notice is appropriate to give to the board and staff?
- How should internal and external communications be handled?
- How much overlap should be planned for the departing executive and the incoming ED/CEO?
After more than ten years providing guidance for nonprofit leadership transitions, and more than 70 local nonprofit ED/CEO searches, here is the advice we offer.
How much notice do I give?
– Though a search process can often be completed in 3-4 months, you need to keep in mind that boards are not prepared to immediately jump into search mode. They need time to prepare. If this is a retirement, our ideal recommendation is that succession-planning conversations begin 2-3 years ahead of the likely retirement year. This allows time to strengthen senior staff and the board leadership team. Once prepared, an exact retirement date can be shared 7-8 months before the retirement date and still allow for a planned and orderly transition.
How should communications be handled?
– Make sure that the first communication is with your board chair or executive committee. The executive committee can then work with the ED/CEO to determine when to inform the rest of the board and staff. Starting the conversation can be as simple as “I am beginning to think about setting a retirement date and would like to talk.” You will probably find your board leaders supportive and appreciative of your decision, but also anxious to learn what they need to be doing, recognizing that their role will increase to ensure the work of the organization continues smoothly.
We talk to many EDs/CEOs as they are starting this conversation because board leaders appreciate knowing of affordable search and support options like Charitable Advisors. Charitable Advisors supports 15-20 nonprofit ED/CEO searches each year in central Indiana.
Beyond the board and staff, nonprofits have shared the big retirement announcement in different ways. We have had nonprofit clients where the retiring ED/CEO has taken an informal approach and begun to share her upcoming plans over a couple years with donors and funders as she was meeting with them. This relaxed approach seemed effective in reassuring stakeholders that everything was under control and well-planned. In another case, the organization decided to keep the announcement confidential and revealed the executive’s departure in coordination with a major organizational event. In any case, you want to ensure the people closest to you are learning of the impending leadership change first.
How much overlap should be planned?
– While every situation is different, there is usually less transition time required than staff and board leaders initially believe. Keep in mind that you are hiring a new leader to take the reins and tackle the opportunities and challenges of your organization using their skills and experience, informed by the past work of the organization and retiring ED/CEO. The retiring ED/CEO will be invaluable to share the organization’s background and context. They are also critical in meeting the staff team, supporters and key stakeholders. It is important to recognize that the retiring ED/CEO is not training the new leader to do things his or her way.
From experience, we have found that if a solid leadership team is in place, then the two ED/CEOs may spend as little as a few days in the office together with regular conversations and community introductions over several weeks. The transition will be easiest for staff if they do not have two ED/CEOs for very long. If there are no other staff or a small team, the new ED/CEO will need more time with the outgoing ED/CEO, but having the departing leader document methods and processes will be particularly helpful.
If you are thinking about your retirement, let us know how we can help you and your organization prepare and conduct an effective search process.
Bryan Orander, President