Every organization must transition a long-term and/or founding CEO at some point in its growth. This requires pre-planning on the part of the governance board and an open discussion about succession planning with the current CEO. At Catalyst Consulting Services, we not only conduct executive searches, but work with our clients to ensure that the current operations are stabilized and prepared for new leadership. I would like to share a few tips to help your organization prepare for this important transition and as always, if Catalyst can assist, please do not hesitate to reach out to us!

Search Launch and Initial Stages

  • If the Board has become disengaged, hire a consulting firm to learn more about the agency to ensure the search firm can represent the agency well to candidates.
  • Consider bringing on an organizational therapist for the Board and staff as they move through the transition of their leader. It really can be the stages of grief.
  • Engage the Search Committee in a discussion about the fact that the founder cannot truly be replaced. The new CEO will have a separate and unique set of skills, abilities, and personality traits. Interviewing a retiring founder can help define what will be attributes to look for; in one example, a retiring founder conveyed that the search firm should be looking for the “X” factor: warmth, passion, authenticity, charisma and—of course—a connection to the mission.
  • The Search Committee should be open to talking about what they really want for the future without either going 180 degrees from what the previous leader brought or trying to clone the long-term leader.
  • Often it is the Board who is the most challenged to change their thinking regarding what the successor to a long-time or founding executive needs to bring. A common perception is that the staff is holding on to the profile of the beloved executive leader as the ideal and desired profile for the successor. However, often the staff is ready and even eager for new, fresh leadership, even though they admire and respect the outgoing CEO. The staff often has more positive energy around the change and the Board has a lot of anxiety and trepidation. Boards are often inspired by what they see of and hear from staff as to the executive search and transition.
  • Guide the Board to develop a vision for what a successful new CEO would prioritize and work toward in their first year and first five years.
  • Engage internal and external stakeholders in an in-depth discussion about what the new CEO needs to bring to the table. Talk to Board members and funders, but also meet with key staff, posing insightful questions. Whiteboarding the responses gathered during this phase, as that has been very impactful and helpful.
  • Clearly define the founding/outgoing CEO’s role in the process. Discussions among the search consultant, Search Committee, and founding/outgoing CEO should be organized to create clearly defined expectations. CEOs often have questions about how and when to be involved in the process. Make sure all parties agree when the founding CEO should take the lead and when they should step back. Some guidelines for the expectations:
      • It is important for the long-term leader to meet with the search firm and provide insight about the search/the state of the organization, as well as to be available to answer questions for the search firm throughout the search process. o Generally, the CEO should not serve on Search Committee (there are a few times when they did and it worked, but if this is the case, they should not participate in the interviews together with the Search Committee).
      • The outgoing CEO should only be a resource to the new CEO and not be in constant communication with the staff and Board once they leave.

Once the Position is Filled

  • Let the new CEO make the decision about how much (if any) transition time they want with the outgoing CEO. Very limited (if any) overlap with the incoming CEO is recommended, ideally no more than one week. Additionally, a long-term CEO cannot be on the Board or involved for at least a year to give the new CEO an opportunity to introduce themselves. If the CEO is also a founder, they should not be given a Board seat for at least three years, until the new CEO has an opportunity to build their own leadership within the organization.
  • Develop a robust communication plan to the community and donor community.
  • Outgoing CEO should be thanked for their years of service. They should feel good about leaving and appreciated for their dedication and longevity.

Onboarding and Performance

  • Founder/long-term CEO should make introductions to major donors or important stakeholders where appropriate.
  • Onboarding is especially important when following a long-term leader. Perhaps the Search Committee can evolve into an Onboarding Committee, which can be a resource for the incoming CEO, helping them meet the right people and providing insight.
  • The Board should establish performance metrics and a list of hoped for accomplishments for the new CEO’s first year. Having the Board review this list with the new CEO ensures that everybody is clear on the organizational and executive performance goals.
  • An executive coach might be a good idea and is especially important if the incoming CEO has not been a CEO previously.
  • The board should be open to an incoming CEO having some suggestions for new members of the Board. Making sure that the Board has some transition is a good idea, but it is also important that the Board not fully transition. Sometimes members of the Board want to retire when the long-term or founding CEO leaves the organization, but there needs to be some continuity.
  • Although there is a temptation for the new CEO to make changes, listening and getting a sense of the community and culture is really important (unless they inherited a turn-around situation). Making drastic changes too quickly could be problematic for the incoming CEO.

Michelle Turman, MA, CFRE is the CEO of Catalyst Consulting Services whose mission is to facilitate positive change for nonprofits in the areas of executive searches, organizational management, and fundraising. With over twenty-seven years of nonprofit experience, Turman has been responsible for increasing the impact and best practices of nonprofit organizations she serves and has raised over $75 million for the Tampa Bay community through her professional and personal philanthropic efforts.

If your organization is going to transition a long-term and/or founding CEO and you are looking for help, contact Catalyst Consulting Services at (813) 839-2282

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