Four Secrets I Learned About Executive Transition

In January of this year I hit my seven-year work anniversary (thank you LinkedIn for the reminder!)

I was the Executive Director of MAG America – an incredible humanitarian organization helping people to get back on their feet after conflict.  The work was rewarding, challenging, humbling, and inspiring.  In so many ways, my dream job.

But on that anniversary, something changed…I started to think about what was next for me professionally, and I felt a rush of excitement.  I had caught the seven-year itch…

So, I listened to my gut, and over the next six-months I transitioned out of my role as Executive Director.

To get started I read a GAZILLION expert resources about Executive Transitions.  Now, don’t get me wrong, they taught me a lot about best practice, and what mistakes to avoid.  But, as with most things in life, I learned the most from living through the experience.

If you’re in the majority (67% according to CompassPoint), your organization will go through an executive transition at some point over the next five years.

Are you prepared?

Here are the 4 Secrets I Learned about Executive Transition

1. Only you (Executive Director) know how much notice to give.

When I told my friends and family that I planned to give the board six months notice of my resignation, they told me I was crazy (“Have you considered the standard two weeks??”).  When I consulted white papers about Executive Transitions, they told me I was crazy (“You’re only giving six months?  That’s not enough!”).

Turns out six-months was just right.

Only you, Executive Director, will know how much notice time is the right amount of time for you and your organization to transition.

Do you have a succession plan? … Is there an obvious choice for your replacement? … How long have you been the Executive Director, and are you the founder? … Are you totally burnt out, or do you have some gas left in the tank? (be honest …)

Answers to all of these questions will help you determine the right amount of time required for a successful transition – for both you and the organization.  Think things through, settle on an amount of time that feels right, and start the conversation with your Board chair.

2. Writing a succession plan isn’t that hard or time consuming

When I resigned, we did not have a succession plan.  Like so many organizations, it was on the “to do” list, but it never rose to the top… until it became number one on the list very quickly.  So, in about a week’s time, we put together a succession plan.

You might be saying to yourself, “oh that’s great, if it only takes a week to write a succession plan, then we’ll just wait until we need it!”

Do not listen to that voice!  Instead you may want to consider the voice that’s saying, “Oh it only takes a week to write? Let’s do it now!”

Why now?

Because a succession plan starts getting people thinking and talking about the eventual day when the Executive Director resigns.  It’s going to happen,  so let’s talk about it.  Let’s talk about where we might find good people for the job, so that we have a jumpstart when we need to start looking.  Let’s talk about whether any current staff leaders are strong candidates and, if so, what development opportunities can we offer to make them even stronger candidates.  And let’s talk about it now, when we’ve got time on our hands and stress levels aren’t high.  Let’s do it now.

3. Finding your replacement is not your job (it’s easier said than done).

It’s common knowledge that CEO recruitment is a board responsibility.  Of course that makes sense.  And earlier in my ED tenure, I thought it sounded great.  One less thing to worry about when I did decide to move on.

So, I should have been relieved when the board charged ahead with finding my replacement.  Instead, I found myself trying to push my way in, make my opinion known, and influence their decision-making process.

Until I decided to let go…

Let go and trust the board.  I trusted that they would call on me when they needed me, and I trusted that they would make the right decision.  Once I got myself to this place, I felt at peace – with my decision to move on and with the comfort of knowing that the organization would do great without me.

4. Hire help – even when money is tight

An executive transition is a major organizational change.  When done at its best, it provides an opportunity for leadership to engage in thoughtful reflection and decisive action to propel the organization into the future.  At its worst, it results in confusion, frustration, and a loss of trust and commitment from those within and outside the organization.

Getting it right takes skilled leadership, communication, change management, executive search, and more.  Unless your organization has expertise in all of these areas, you will need to bring in external resources to make sure you transition successfully.

I know what you’re thinking … that sounds expensive.  And it can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

If money is tight, then think about hiring help for only the area where you have the weakest internal capacity.  Let an expert handle the recruitment, if you don’t have an HR department.  Or, hire a consultant to advise on how to communicate with and involve staff and key supporters, if change management isn’t your strength.

It will cost much more to fix getting it wrong than to pay for getting it right.

Put this learning into action now!

Are you and your organization prepared for an executive transition?  If you don’t have a succession plan, or haven’t taken it out in a while – start the conversation about executive transition now!

Also, I’d love to hear from you!  Are you an Executive Director, board member, or staff member that has been through an executive transition?  Share the secrets that you’ve learned (we’ve all got our own) in the comment area.  What did you get right, what did you get wrong, and what will you do differently next time around?