How to Hand Over the Reins: Two Leaders Share Lessons From Their Own Transition

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By Barbara A. Glassman and Rachel Howard

Five years ago, for only the second time in three decades, our organization went through a leadership change. As the incoming and the outgoing leader, we worked together to ensure the handover of power was smooth. Today, our budget and staff have doubled in size.

To be honest, our organization did not have a solid succession plan. However, we did have some important guidelines in place that fostered success. For example, we made it clear that the departing leader would serve as director of programs for the first three months of the new leader’s tenure, which eased the transfer of knowledge.

We also each committed to making only those decisions that fell within our authority and to redirect questions to the other when appropriate.

Clearly defined roles and a time-limited overlap helped reduce confusion and clarify decision making. Here are some other tips to ensure a successful executive transition.

Park your ego at the door — both of you. A new leader will look at an organization with fresh eyes and want to make changes. This is natural, healthy, and probably good for the staff and board, even though change can spark anxiety.

Yet, a brand-new executive director knows little about the organization, its operations, or what has been tried in the past. In the first few months, a new leader should ask questions, listen, and most important, refrain from making quick judgments. In other words, as you take the reins, be humble and appreciate the gems left to you.

A new leader will pick up quickly on organizational issues and see the need for changes — some more urgent than others. The previous chief likely struggled with these same issues and may have insights that could help frame a future strategy.

Outgoing executives must be prepared for a new person to examine the organization critically. It’s part of their job. Being honest and forthcoming about past failures as well as successes will help a new leader make thoughtful decisions and avoid repeating past mistakes.

Working together brings to bear the twin benefits of fresh eyes and a strong knowledge of the organization’s history and culture. For example, we co-created new positions, new program operations, and new departments to ensure pathways for promotion and to reduce “silos” and staff turnover. Although the staff initially balked at the new structure, it has survived and has stabilized our organization through a period of rapid growth.

Recognize and value your strengths. In preparation for our transition, the board of directors worked with the departing leader to identify critical skills required for the next leader and the organization’s next chapter.

Organizations have a life cycle, and at each stage, leaders need different skills. For example, when our founder retired, the next leader shored up finances, developed robust programs, and created organizational processes. This included replacing outdated printed products with online resources, acquiring new technology, and developing new financial systems.

Five years ago, the organization needed someone to create organizational efficiencies, strengthen program evaluation, and expand networks. Under a new leader, we cleaned up programmatic, fundraising, and financial data; established metrics for tracking impact; and created a plan to reach a broader audience with our services.

When transitioning leaders know their strengths and appreciate those of others, they have a far greater chance of success.

Communicate consistently. Leaders in transition must recognize and articulate that change is a natural and positive part of an organization’s life cycle. This ability is vital to staff and donors, who will appreciate knowing the organization is not in crisis but, rather, evolving as a healthy nonprofit. When outgoing and incoming leaders communicate the transition in the same way, they convey stability and a sense of strategic growth.

Make and keep an ally. Being an executive director is an incredibly challenging and rewarding job. The biggest mistake one can make is trying to do it alone. You must have allies and support to succeed. There is no better potential ally than your predecessor. This person knows the issues and players — and your board — better than anyone else.

For an outgoing leader, changing roles from boss to adviser may not come naturally. It requires a shift in mindset and the humility to support rather than lead. Some may not have the temperament to do this, but for many who spent years building an organization, the opportunity to continue to help it flourish is welcome.

Even when an outgoing leader is leaving by choice, it can be hard to let go. For many, the position is more than a job; it is an identity. Letting go of the status and authority of the position and making space for new approaches and ideas can be difficult. When both parties respect and appreciate each other’s contribution and approach the collaboration with thoughtfulness and tact, it allows for smoother processes as changes are implemented.

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