Leadership Transition – Setting the Stage

As members of the board of directors, there is much you can do to prepare the organization for an eventual transition long before the executive leader announces an intention to leave.

Use the following steps to aid in the making a leadership transition smooth for every aspect of your organization.

1. Make leadership development a priority.

Leadership Development

Management development builds leadership potential broadly across the organization. Succession planning involves finding and perhaps preparing someone with leadership ability to assume the executive director’s functions. An effective leadership transition is a product of effective management development. Sometimes, when an organization has been committed to management development over time the successor to an outgoing executive director can be found among current or past staff members.

The board should insist that all senior staff members have personal development plans, created jointly with their supervisors, which chart their desired areas for professional growth. Each staff member's plan would likely include some job-specific sills, such as marketing, board relations, strategic visioning, PR, or database creation, as well so-called "soft skills," such as communicating effectively, managing conflict, and setting priorities.

Then the board and executive director should ensure that all staff have opportunities through

nonprofit capacity building training, cross training in one another's responsibilities, short internships, mentorships, coaching, and on the job experience to strengthen their leadership capacity. Funding for training and other growth opportunities should be included in the organization's budget and grant requests, and supervisors should track progress and provide encouragement and coaching where necessary.

2. Make sure that the executive director
and the board have accurate up-to-date job descriptions...

Job Descriptions

...that relate to what you each really do and are based on an assessment of what the organization needs. This is helpful not just for tracking how things are going in with current executive director, but also will establish a framework for creating a job description for his or her eventual successor.

3. Consciously plan for transfer
of "institutional knowledge."

Transfer Institutional Knowledge

Insist that processes and procedures be well documented, information be shared, files be centralized and standardized, and whatever other steps are necessary be taken to ensure that critical knowledge is not just in one or two people's heads and can easily be accessed by others as needed.

4. Test yourself.


The next time the executive director takes a vacation, put the system to the test and evaluate the results. What information was hard to come by? What decisions were difficult to make? What systems need to be put into place to ensure a smooth transition for the organization and the new leadership?

5. Create and sustain a culture of evaluation.

Culture of Evaluation

Even in those organizations where regular feedback and evaluation of programs and services are the norm, it is not always the case that the board routinely reviews the executive director's performance. But doing so is a critical board function. Since the board and the executive director ideally work together very closely, it is important that the board have feedback about its performance from the executive director as well. Be sure to have frequent conversations about mutual expectations.

Develop annual professional goals for the executive director and for board members that advance the organization's overall institutional goals. Some goals would be common to all board members and some would be specific to the positions certain members hold and the responsibilities they take on. Such goals create a frame work for the conversations about how things are going and can sometimes begin a discussion about an executive's future transition.

Schedule an annual formal self-assessment and reciprocal evaluation of the board and the executive director. First the board and the executive director should consider how their

own performance measured up to their own expectations for themselves and then they should explore one another's contributions. By means of this constructive process board members and the executive director will come to understand what changes they might make that would benefit the organization.

While this may sound great in theory, most board members and executive directors are reluctant to give one another honest feedback. Yet without it, board members and executive directors are likely to become dissatisfied with each other, coming to see one another as impediments rather than partners.

Explore a relationship with Leading Transitions today: 414.228.9860  |  dawn@leadingtransitions.com


Testimonial 1
"Although still early in our re-org process, it appears clear I owe you.

I’m certainly feeling much more optimistic regarding the opportunities that might be possible during this challenging time of transition. Thank you for your insights, connections, and support."
Testimonial 2
"Mindy, thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure to work with you. Thank you for your flexibility. I have so enjoyed working with the staff and our boards since I took the interim role. We are in a better place today and I am very appreciative of all of the work our staff has done to get us here. It is a wonderful job. I look forward to our future. Thanks again for everything."
Testimonial 3
"Mindy is a life changing human who is incredible
in this community."
Testimonial 4
I genuinely appreciated the time you gave me and the candid information you provided. It was very helpful and will hopefully help me make a more informed decision.
Testimonial 5
"Our conversation on Friday seriously helped me seal the deal with (the organization) and feel confident in how I went about doing it. And that was just an extension of your help about 2 weeks ago, preparing me for the interview. And this whole experience is an extension of our open, honest, insightful conversation 2 months ago as I began this journey. Thank you!"
Testimonial 6
"You have been amazing throughout this process and I want you
to know that you have made this a little easier
because you are so helpful."
Testimonial 7
"Thanks again for finding time in your event-filled schedule to meet with me. I appreciate and benefit from your insights and attention to my questions and concerns."
Testimonial 8
Thank you for your amazing guidance and leadership throughout our search process. You guided us every step of the way. You were so easy to reach and communicate with. I so enjoyed working with you."
Testimonial 9
"Can't even begin to thank you for the inclusion and your support during the selection process. Your encouragement made a huge difference."
Testimonial 10
"I hope our paths cross again, thank you for your kindness, wisdom, and inspirational guidance."
Testimonial 11
"Thanks, Mindy - It was WONDERFUL to spend some time with you - did my heart good! Your energy is always infectious. I really appreciated your time and advice as I navigate this last arc in my career work. You are inspiring and practical at the same time!"


"Many thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience at today's executive transitions program. You did a terrific job leading the discussion and keeping the conversation flowing and focused."