Organizations in Transition: Doing it Right.

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Photo courtesy of SOS Institute, Futures Without Violence

Over the past year I have acted in the most rewarding and intense short-but-longish term professional role I have ever had: the interim CEO of a statewide nonprofit. The timing was right for me to bring together the 21 plus years of (mostly trial-by-fire) nonprofit leadership experience I had in order to guide this organization through a significant transition. Reflecting now, one month later, gives me a chance to analyze how this went, and to codify why I think it has been successful. Many things struck me as critical to the formula in this year of getting to know the staff and embarking with them on a process of transition to which everyone needed to lean in.

As this position was coming to an end, I also applied and got into to a program called Leadership Triangle, which has had the secondary benefit of helping me pull together my reflections on this transition. 

One fact that struck me upside the head on day two of this course: most people in EVERY industry – not just the NGO industry – get their first management and leadership position around 31 years old – but the majority of those people have NO ACTUAL TRAINING on how to lead or manage until they are over 40. That’s a good ten+ years of hot-seat style learning that might lead to seriously unproductive consequences for whole teams.

And that was just one of the things that rose to the top as a need at this organization. How did we break it down and prioritize the needs? Well, that is the first thing we did: we asked the staff – and that means everyone on the staff – what they thought the organization needed. We did a start-stop-continue analysis – and guess what: everyone in leadership and supervisory positions identified the need for more support for their management roles. All of these leaders were extremely committed to the mission and we knew we were filling a role that no other non-profit can in our state. But the time to build our own infrastructure, to think through our own professional development needs, had not been prioritized. (PS. This was through no fault of their own – and we made great strides in this area over the past year!).

Hiring, onboarding, and equity/inclusion also rose to the top. We started staff-led working groups to create a formal onboarding process for both staff and board, to analyze the organization’s structure, and to hire an equity and inclusion firm to make sure we are truly walking the walk. At times, this all felt muddy and was surely not easy – but in the end these things all helped us take steps forward.

When I indicated to the board that it felt like time to start the permanent CEO search, they asked for my recommendations. We talked intensely. And we decided that setting the permanent leader up for success should include a commitment to transitioning them into the role together. So for the first two weeks of her on-boarding, I worked very closely with the new CEO to provide as much information as I could and to continue to shape some of the longer-term projects I had been working on that were all starting to gel. I was still there almost full-time. I did the introductions to funders and stakeholders whenever it made sense. Together we facilitated the first leadership and staff meetings, and then she took the reins.

This insight of the board to take this step in order to ease the staff’s anxiety about another leadership transition was critical. The staff was being shown that the board was invested in a successful transition. The new CEO and I were invested in not losing the institutional knowledge I had gained, and in sharing information to set her up for the most success. And the transition has been incredible. We have talked about it a lot, and my hope would be for every organization to have the resources and/or circumstances to do so. I know that is not the case, but in my lessons learned I have truly gained a wealth of knowledge and ideas. And I say if there is any part of this plan that you could make happen for YOUR organization, do it!

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Wanna know more? Are you a staff or board non-profit leader?

My first consultation is always free, and I am happy to consult either short- or longer-term with any organization in transition on what action steps might have the most impact so that your mission doesn’t get interrupted.