Agency Transitions: What happens when the Executive Director leaves?

Nonprofit Organization (NPO) Executive Directors often enter an agency with one objective – a need to bring the organization to its full potential or to maintain the success of the organization. Executive Directors uphold their position for years; so when they decide to pursue other opportunities, the organization, its board members and key stakeholders must be prepared for a major change.

The departing Executive Director plays a crucial role in the organization’s transition.

A succession plan should always be in place to prepare for the exit; whether the Executive Director leaves or is asked to leave. For a period of time, the agency may not have an Executive Director while the board interviews potential candidates. In some cases, the Executive Director’s role will be temporarily filled by one or two employees during the transition period.

If the agency’s board is interviewing candidates to fill a retiring Executive Director’s position, there will be a period of overlap between the current ED’s position ending and the new ED’s position beginning. Though a period of overlap between the old ED and the new ED is wise in transition, the overlap must not be overextended – there must be a clear break in role change. There needs to be no ambiguity about who is in charge of the nonprofit organization.

Productivity of the NPO is maximized when everyone in the organization is working toward the same goal; retiring Executive Directors who aren’t willing to embrace change are only causing the organization, and their years of hard work, to fail.

Leadership coach, Beth Greeland states: “…And, while it may be a nice idea that you can “keep a hand in”, either as a part time consultant or as a member of the board – it’s a potentially dangerous path. The loyalty to you can cloud the board’s objectivity about the new ED’s vision and ideas. In my experience, the optimal situation is for the departing ED to leave the organization completely on his/her last day and only be accessible to the new ED at his/her request.”

Ensuring all internal information such as passwords, processes and documents are organized and readily available for the current staff and incoming Executive Director is imperative. In order to guarantee a smooth transition, the current ED must maintain structure in his or her approach to “passing the torch” to prevent confusion and chaos.

As hard as it is to let go of something you’ve worked night and day to make successful, it’s time for someone else to take the reins. If you have led your employees successfully, the agency will run beautifully upon departure.

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Eric R. Payne

I think you provide sound advice that applies to most organizations, not just NPO’s. From my experience– Beware the Charismatic Leader. They can do wonderful things while at the helm. But when they depart, a leadership vacuum can be created.