In the past few months, four different grantee partners whom I’ve supported and worked with closely over many years announced that their top leader would be stepping down. The reasons were varied, but none of them had to do with organizational crises. It was more the burnout of the past pandemic year, the opportunities that are opening up as other organizations and institutions start hiring new staff, and a fundamental need for nonprofit organizations focused on social change to address racial equity at the highest leadership levels.

While I am not an expert on leadership transitions, over the years I have observed grantees undertaking leadership changes and learned a bit about what tends to work. As I engage in conversations with these organizations-in-transition, I’ve been asked to offer some thoughts about what I have seen, and what are best-in-practice transition strategies for hiring and onboarding new directors.

There are certainly plenty of lessons to be learned from poorly planned and executed transitions—and many notes of caution about what not to do. These include:

  • Don’t expect staff or search firms to lead; the board needs to be fully engaged.
  • Don’t hide organizational weaknesses; potential candidates should be allowed to see what needs strengthening.
  • At the outset of a transition, don’t expect the new director to be equally good at visionary leadership and management; the skills to do both take time to develop.

There is no single blueprint for an effective transition. There are, however, some important questions to ask – and ways to engage – that can make all the difference in how seamlessly a new leader can integrate herself into, or help to transform, an organization’s culture and structure. The difference is in how the Board engages in the process.

As I share the following thoughts, I’d like to give a shout-out to the Global Greengrants Fund, which took a best-in-practice approach to its own leadership transition in 2019-20, and shared with us the ways they were creating a welcoming place for their new director to flourish and advance the organization’s work.

Laura Garcia, Greengrants’ new President and CEO, started work the same week the office had to close down due to COVID, which is a harsh proof that best plans can’t always be carried out as hoped. But the Board and staff’s intentionality that came with the transition planning did help. “Transition moments are very delicate for an organization,” Garcia explained in a conversation we had recently about her experience stepping into her leadership role. “Under normal operations, the Executive Director is responsible for managing challenges and opportunities. During a leadership change, boards that are ready, aligned and clearly unified can ensure organizational success and effectiveness.”

Garcia cites several ways the Global Greengrants Fund board ensured a successful transition – indicating that it began with the design of the search process, and carried through to her first months in a new home and a new job. Here are her reflections, in her own words:

  • “As a finalist candidate, I was interviewed with the whole staff team, not just board. I knew that the team would be involved, would interview me, and share their opinion to the board. The interview was very tough, but meaningful. When I was hired, it made me feel a lot more comfortable because I knew that the team had selected me. It was not just the board appointing me. I started off in a legitimate place with staff.
  • “The board created a transition committee (separate from the hiring committee) that started thinking about how to support me in the transition. It was a very thoughtful and conscious way to acknowledge that I was moving my whole life to come here and moving away from Mexico. The committee made me feel supported and welcomed not only in my job but also in the country. When you are migrating into another place, that is emotional; it is a deep place. The Transition Committee members knew about that and had put a lot of thought into it – what it meant for me and what I would need from them. The Board provided a stipend for me to accommodate moving and whatever I needed for the move. One of the board members gave me a full 15-page document on the city – pharmacies, doctors, real-estate agents. That was very special!
  • “The Board made sure that the past Executive Director would be with me for my first month on the job. We had a healthy transition because [the former director] had been working on her own transition. A month was the right amount of time to overlap. After that first month, the outgoing director was available for 10-hours as a consultant for any type of question or support I need during my first six months on the job.”

Garcia sums up her perspective on how the Global Greengrants Fund ensured a smooth transition: “The Board put in a lot of time and anticipation and thoughtfulness. I can clearly see that. These things made me feel like they really wanted me. Sometimes boards don’t even think of requirements for new directors to succeed. The main thing is for boards to understand that they will need to dedicate three times the amount of their Board time during a transition.”

“There is no single blueprint for an effective transition. There are, however, some important questions to ask – and ways to engage – that can make all the difference in how seamlessly a new leader can integrate herself into, or help to transform, an organization’s culture and structure. The difference is in how the Board engages in the process.”

Garcia’s experience reveals much about what’s required to ensure a smooth transition. Here are some things for Boards of Directors to consider as your organization prepares for a leadership change:

Engage the Board in a transition discussion that envisions all the ways a new director could need support, training, and a soft landing. Have the board and staff thoughtfully considered the critical components and implications of changing leadership? How far are your board and staff willing and able to go to ensure a smooth transition?

Focus on how the new hire will need support stepping into a leadership position in an organization that is steeped in the sector’s values and norms – especially if the new leader comes from a different sector. How open is the organization to changing its operations based on the new leaders’ vision? To what extent are you asking the new director to fit in, and to what extent are you hoping the new leader will transform from within?

For groups that are onboarding leaders of-color to a primarily white organization, be proactive in building safe and brave spaces for conversations about racial equity and justice. How can the organization ensure that leaders of color are not solely responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion? Has the board engaged experts or sought counsel to ensure they are prepared for a non-white leader?

This may be a good time to explore different leadership structures. Would co-directors be a better model moving forward? Or, this may be a good time to hire a number two who can focus on operations. The arts community has advanced shared leadership with an Artistic Director and Executive Director for many years – how can Boards adapt that model for social change organizations?

Consider providing a cushion of programmatic support to ensure that the new director is able to advance program goals seamlessly. What kind of timeframe might be reasonably required for her to get up to speed? What tools and talent will she have at her disposal as she onboards? How much funding needs to be secured to ensure continuous program delivery during the transition?

Don’t be afraid to talk about what an effective leadership transition will cost. New leaders may bring skills and talents that enhance the organization’s capacity, but there are inevitably areas where a new leader could use training and support, including communications training, cultural sensitivity training across all the domains where the organization works, resources for re-locating the new director, a travel budget to meet with donors and partners, and support for events to introduce the new director in venues that strengthen the organization’s visibility and connectivity. Some boards even fundraise to secure a strong operating reserve to ensure financial capacity during and after the transition.

When feasible, the board should have the primary responsibility for raising these executive transition funds. Consider engaging current and potential funders throughout the process. Consider them essential stakeholders and partners. Essentially, the board should be asking funders to lean-in, rather than hold-back, during this transition. A well-financed transition will benefit the staff and organizational partners as a new leader is able to advance programs without backtracking to secure funds in this transition phase.

Change can be hard and leadership change can be fraught. So, in this era of pandemic turmoil and racial reckoning, it is that much more important that social change organizations figure out ways for the board to be engaged, thoughtful and intentional in its plans. Using a wide-angle view of ways to make a new leader feel welcome, and identifying and raising funds where needed to ensure the new leader has some traction while on-boarding and adapting to the organization’s culture and work will build good will and go a long way toward a seamless leadership transition.