Five Good Ideas for successful succession planning
Leadership transitions are the most vulnerable period during an organization’s tenure. And they are notorious for creating tremendous anxiety among staff, board members, donors, and volunteers, especially if it’s a long-tenured leader.
Why? Is it because it’s rushed? There isn’t buy-in from all the necessary decision-makers? The wrong people are running the show? There’s no plan?
Having a cohesive, up-to-date succession plan is not only best practice, it’s critical to your organization’s longevity. Joan Garry, champion and advisor for non-profit leaders and founder of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, presents her five good ideas to conduct any leadership transition with ease and announce confidently to the world that your organization is built to last.
Five Good Ideas
- Don’t wait: The average Executive Director (ED) tenure is six years, and the search can take four to seven months minimum.
- Plan for a two- or (gasp!) three-year intentional process: Enough talk about what happens if the ED accidentally disappears. EDs don’t care to think about accidentally disappearing.
- Don’t call it succession planning: Let’s call it “organizational readiness” and reduce anxiety.
- Invest in board leadership: What will the board do when the person in charge is the one who is leaving?
- Hold your outgoing ED accountable: Build a list of high-level program priorities for the ED.
- Nonprofit Leadership Lab template: Two-year executive director succession plan timeline
- Joan Garry’s book Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because the World Is Counting on You
- Blog post: The five keys to an effective succession plan
- Nonprofits are Messy podcast: Episode 191: How to Build Amazing Work Relationships (with Michael Bungay Stanier)
- Book by Alan Broadbent and Franca Gucciardi: You’re It! Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations from Both a Seasoned and a First-Time CEO
Special offer to join the Nonprofit Leadership Lab
Inside Joan Garry’s Nonprofit Leadership Lab – serving 5,000 leaders of small and medium-sized organizations (including Canada) – members get the tools and support they need to create a succession plan and more.
- Receive a special offer of 25% off your first year when you become a member.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So today we’re here to talk about succession. Succession can have all of the elements of a good drama that many of us got to watch recently on HBO or elsewhere. Consider King Lear, or other stories like that. In these stories, the fate of organizations hinges on moments infused with risk, intrigue, ego, even betrayal, all the hallmarks of a good drama.
But all of these elements that make for cultural touchstones are exactly what real organizations and nonprofits with important missions do not want in their succession processes. They want it to be orderly, smooth, cooperative, and with as little drama as possible.
And that’s why we’ve invited Joan Garry to help us think through how to plan for successful succession. She’s the founder of the Nonprofit Leadership Lab and former executive director of GLAAD, one of the largest LGBTQ NGOs in the US. Her blog has over 100,000 readers a month, and her podcast Nonprofits Are Messy is the number one nonprofit podcast on iTunes.
Joan is joining us today from the Jersey Shores, and she is kindly making herself available the day before Thanksgiving. So thank you and welcome, Joan.
Joan Garry: Well, thank you Elizabeth. Looking at a long list of organizations that are represented here today is very inspiring to me, and to be able to take a bite of the apple of trying to help you untangle some of these knots feels like a real privilege. So I’m glad to be here.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that effective succession planning is not emergency planning. It’s not something you do in the 11th hour. It’s about organizational stability and sustainability, and perhaps sustainability being the operative word. What are the risks and costs of not having a succession plan? Maybe we start there.
Joan Garry: Sure. I think intrigue, betrayal, drama, some of those things might come into play. But I believe that we all have to remember that a leadership transition is the most vulnerable point in the journey of a nonprofit organization. And so it must be treated with care.
And the risk of not doing so? We could start with not recruiting a rockstar to replace your current executive director. We could then move on to attrition, staff members who are not happy with new CEO or executive director, or staff members who wanted the job and did not have the skills or competencies.
Lack of donor communications leads to a great deal of anxiety on the part of donors who may actually say, “You know what? I’m going to wait this out and see what becomes of this new person before I actually reinvest in your work.” So there are real human and financial risks associated with not getting this right.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, the risk is there. Where do we start? When do we start?
Joan Garry: Well, the best time to start would’ve been yesterday, and then the next best time would be now. So hat’s off to all of you who are sitting through this webinar this afternoon, this morning, or whenever you’re watching it, for investing some time and thinking about what this is actually really about. So my first big idea here is you cannot wait. Do not wait.
The average tenure of an executive director, give or take about six years. A search can take anywhere between four, seven months, sometimes longer. I joke that boards spend three or four months just writing a job description, when they could in fact just actually put two words on a piece of paper, “Messiah wanted.”
So we do this slowly, but I guess my point here is with average tenure and length of search, you’re basically either just finishing a leadership transition or you’re on the cusp of one. And so I think it’s very important that we look at this more broadly than this every year we have to think about, “Let’s talk about what happens if Joan gets hit by that bus.” It’s so much bigger and so much more important for the sustainability of the organization.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, it’s about planning, it’s about getting out in front, and having that as an ongoing thinking process for the board in many ways. And that’s one of the board’s responsibilities, at its core. So we don’t wait. And what are the benefits of actually doing this planning in advance, of getting out in front of it, of having that as an ongoing core deliverable of the board?
Joan Garry: The benefit is what I might call great organizational hygiene, is that a succession plan or as we’ll go through this Elizabeth, sort of a transition playbook, an organizational readiness plan, looks from tip to toe at an organization and makes sure that it is ready for a transition. And to be ready for a transition requires that your organization is in really good shape and can sustain itself through bumpy waters, as well as to be able to have the right infrastructure and the right program priorities for you to actually take your work to the next level in terms of scope and impact.
Elizabeth McIsaac: We understand that it’s important to get started, to get on it right away, to give space for it. How long do we expect this to take? Is it an ongoing task of the board like I suggested, or is there kind of a finite sense to this?
Joan Garry: Yes, there is. It is an ongoing task, and it needs to be under this umbrella of a transition playbook, an organizational readiness plan. And so my second big idea is plan for a two, or dare I say, three year intentional process that gets revisited. And I will tell you that this is just not something that most organizations do. And they don’t do it because they bury their heads in the sand.
I was actually working with a client not so long ago who was involved in a leadership transition, and a board member said to me, “So, tell me why Joe is leaving again?” I said, “He’s 73 years old and he’s been with the organization 42 years. What else do I need to tell you, dude?”
So we have to actually reframe for the board that this is an important, ongoing process, and we have to reduce their anxiety by making it more of a playbook. When I talk about a two- or three-year intentional process, I have what I call seven key elements of that. Really quickly, it’s assessing your organizational structure, right? If a new CEO is being recruited and he finds out, or she finds out, or they find out that you have 12 direct reports, they’re going to go run screaming in the other direction. So, you want to look at your structure and see if it makes sense. You want to, two or three years out, invest in your people on staff, today. Who are your emerging leaders? Look at the diversity of your team. How can you invest in diverse people in your organization, and really start to invest in leadership development?
Then, board readiness, educating them about the importance of this, setting key program priorities. What has to get done before someone might leave, if you presume an end date of three years down the road?
Institutionalizing relationships is number five. A lot of times, the CEO or the ED actually own those relationships. Then there’s the part that people only focus on, which is getting search ready. Finding a recruitment firm or doing the job description. That actually comes after all of those other things. And then you always do have to have an emergency plan, the hit by bus 9-1-1 plan. But you can see that those seven things are a body of ongoing work.
I have a client right now that is taking this kind of approach, and taking it really seriously, led by the outgoing board chair, the incoming board chair, and the executive committee, in conjunction with the staff in order to do what I sort of call “love it and list it.” I’ve got to put my house in order, so that I can recruit a rock star, so that I can minimize the tumult a leadership transition actually creates.
Elizabeth McIsaac: That clearly does not happen overnight. It also requires a healthy transparency between the CEO and the board, that this is a conversation, that’s not threatening. It’s actually normalized as part of, as you call it, the organizational hygiene.
Joan Garry: Yes. That actually drives me to good idea number three, which is “don’t call it succession planning.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: Why not?
Joan Garry: Don’t call it that, because it just gives everybody panic attacks. “She’s leaving? Oh no, no, when? Who’s coming in, and could I be the person to get the job?” All that drama and intrigue that we saw on Succession, you’ll see it here.
But if the board starts to take some ownership of its responsibility to ensure that the organization is always ready for whatever transition might come its way, and to hold the staff accountable to do some of these things, then it isn’t. In fact, one of the things that makes people so anxious is that the organizations are not ready. The more ready you are, the less anxiety there is. If you want to decrease anxiety, increase planning,
Elizabeth McIsaac: Increase planning, but then how do you communicate it? Because succession is a trigger word. You hear that, and then as you say, it goes into panic and positioning. So is there an alternate way of communicating this?
Joan Garry: Thinking about it, ED, board chair together, at a board meeting, perhaps. Talk about the need for the organization to be strong, secure, sustainable. For lots and lots of reasons, including but not limited to, the potential of leadership transition.
And then thinking about those seven categories I was talking about, or maybe you adjust them based on your own organization, you begin to tackle them bit by bit, right? That’s why I suggest this three-year plan.
I also suggest that it be directed and guided by the executive committee of your board, if you have an executive committee. I like this, because the executive committee should be this leadership entity. To be really honest, far too often, executive committees don’t have a very clear charge, and they end up being this space where the executive director comes every month and reports out. But, this gives them something to really dig into.
One of my clients made a decision in the organizational readiness phase that they needed their CEO, this one or the one that came five years down the road, or three years down the road, to be much more externally facing. So, we are now three or four years before retirement, adding a number two layer to the management team to allow that to happen.
Could that person be the candidate for the job? Maybe. But that’s not why that function is being added. That function is being added to create a stronger management team and allow the CEO to do what is the best and highest use of him, which is to be externally facing. So it is a way of doing the kinds of tasks that an organization ought to be doing, and putting it under this larger umbrella.
I have to tell you that a search firm, a donor, key stakeholders will be so impressed that you are engaging in this kind of work so that when you do actually announce and communicate, and you communicate that to your staff or externally, and you say that you have been working on organizational readiness for three years or four years because that’s part of what you do, you will actually score huge points, and your organization will be seen in an even greater light during a time that’s often quite vulnerable.
Elizabeth McIsaac: You’ve described a lot of work for the board, and I think many of us have been on boards, and we know what it is to be a volunteer on a board. How do we get the board ready to take this job on? Because this is the big work, and quite frankly, the success marker of the board to get this right and to lead on this. Is that part of the thinking?
Joan Garry: So the big idea number four here is that you must invest in board leadership. I mean that in its broadest sense. Most people do not recruit for leadership attributes. Most boards, most organizations recruit according to what I call the “butts in seats strategy.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: Recruiting for the board. This is about the board recruiting, right?
Joan Garry: Yes, exactly. So that, “I have X number of seats to fill, would you please be on my board?” as opposed to a careful curation of what is needed.
There are two pieces to this, recruitment and education. I’m not naive. I think this is a very hard task for a board. I get it. The person in charge is going to leave, and you are all a posse of volunteers, and you are now in charge. I get that that’s hard. That’s why you have to start far enough out so that you can really start to own that power, so that when the baton gets handed to you by the outgoing executive director, that you actually can hold it and hold it really tightly.
More and more executive directors, when they are candidates, when they are interviewing, want to know about the boards. Who’s the current board chair? I would like to meet the current board chair.
And so there’s education that has to be done about… I mean honestly Elizabeth, everybody on this call would say, “Many of my board members do not understand their roles,” full stop. Not the least of which is don’t understand their role during a transition. Because during a transition, the staff member, the ED is actually not going to drive that process. They are.
So, we have a lot of board education to do in our sector as a general rule. But building a board that can sustain and lead a transition requires intentionality and lots of it. From the composition matrix you build that talks about leadership competencies as a key attribute you’re looking for, to investing in leadership on your committees so that you’re constantly building leadership, to looking at what skills and attributes, experience, and competencies do you need on your board during a transition. Do you need an HR person? Do you need to change someone who has had experience in change management? Start to think now of what you’ll need three or four years down the road.
By the way, you don’t have to have a time certain. If I’m going to retire and I’m 62, I might retire when I’m 65. I might retire when I’m 66 or 67. But that can be shifted or revisited each year of the plan based… So you shift the timing of it so that you’re not actually backing me into a corner to say, “I have to retire when I’m 65.” The readiness sets you up to be able to shift that depending on my personal needs or the organization’s needs.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So now we’re teed up, someone’s ready to go, we’ve got someone lined up to come in. You talked about the passing of the baton. Are there things that we need to think about in that passing of the baton? What are some best practices or what are the good ideas around that?
Joan Garry: So…
Elizabeth McIsaac: I mean, it’s about accountability, right? It’s about the CEO going, coming-
Joan Garry: Yeah. I think my fifth big idea here is that the board needs to really dig into holding the outgoing executive director accountable. Many of the changes I am suggesting here, leadership development, organizational readiness, all of these things should actually be part of an executive director’s performance review. Are they moving the ball downfield with the board on these things, so that we are strong and steady when the time comes for a leadership transition? Right?
The other piece of this, and I see it way too often, right? We see a lot of people who leave this sector because they’ve got a new gig, or they’ve burned out, or they have family issues that make these big hard jobs just too hard to do. But we’re also seeing a lot of folks who are retiring out of the sector. We saw a fair number of them after the pandemic, but you’re also seeing a fair number of boomers who’ve been in these jobs for quite some time, who are actually retiring.
We want to make sure the board is holding that executive director accountable so they are not running out the clock. “I can’t actually fire Joan because she’s 65, but she’s going to retire in a year. And I sure wish she would do something about marketing this organization. But if she hasn’t done it by now, she’s not going to do it over the next year.”
So, I really like a transition playbook or an organizational readiness plan to have big priorities for me as the outgoing executive director that I am held accountable to.
Maybe there are things that maybe the organization has decided that it wants to do – expand internationally, for example. Now, that might be too heavy a lift in two or three years, but I’m the ideal person to get that thing off the ground, to drive that business plan. Not the new person. They can actually scale it and grow it. Or something that isn’t finished, that needs to be completed.
The board has to be tough. They need to identify those big things that I am uniquely suited to launch or finish, and hold me accountable to do that.
By the way, I often have clients write an exit press release long before they go. What are the things that you want to be able to say on that exit press release? Which of them have you not done yet? Don’t you want to spend the last three years of your tenure tackling those things, so that you can write that exit press release and feel like a million bucks about your tenure in the organization, and do that in conjunction with the board chair? All of a sudden, you’re going to find yourself feeling like a million bucks, and the organization is going to be even more ready for a new leader to come in who says, “Wow, you have a business plan to grow internationally? That’s exciting. I want to do that.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, this is a framework. Don’t wait. Make a plan. Do it over two or three years. Be intentional. Don’t call it succession planning. Don’t get everyone freaked out about it. Make it just good organizational hygiene. Invest in board leadership, so you’ve got the right steerage at the helm, and create those accountability pieces so that the exit is smooth, the transition is smooth.
Those are five really important ideas. They’re good ideas, they’re important ideas. We’ve got some questions coming in from the audience. We’ve had some that came in before you started talking.
Joan Garry: More than just some, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I know. I’ve got two pages of it!
Joan Garry: I think that people have a little bit of an appetite or a little bit of anxiety around this topic. I also just want to say one really quick thing, which is you might actually listen to me talk about this and say the following things. “Are you kidding me right now, Joan? How am I ever going to find the time to do this?” That’s why I suggest two or three years. The truth of the matter is, you can’t afford not to do this.
Do you know how many searches crash and burn because this work doesn’t get done? Do you know how many mediocre candidates are hired, because the good ones go to organizations that have done this work?
I’d just like to just quickly make the argument that this is an investment that pays dividends for your cause, for your clients, and the communities you serve.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Well said. We have a number of organizations… The people that come to our sessions, they come from all sizes of organizations.
Joan Garry: Indeed, I saw the list.
Elizabeth McIsaac: A lot of them are small. One of the questions, and there’s several questions around this actually – Is it different for a small nonprofit? Is it different for a grassroots that’s moving into another size? How much is size a real impact on how you go about doing this? Or, are the principles the same?
Joan Garry: I believe that many of the principles are the same, Elizabeth. It may be a scale thing. I actually think that it is the small organization that is probably the most under-resourced or has the least amount of time, and they do the poorest job on this.
Anything that you can do north of 10 minutes a year on, “What do we do if Joan gets hit by a bus?” You are way ahead of the game. If I were running a very small organization, and we’ve supported about 20,000 leaders of small nonprofits in our Nonprofit Leadership Lab every year, focus on your board, focus on your board. Many of our members who have small organizations have small boards that some of them are founder boards, and they are not prepared. They’re not educated to do the work of a board, and they are so not prepared to lead a transition. They are often what I call, if you know the children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, a “Make Way for Ducklings board.” Small organizations often have a very dominant ED and the board members say, “Hey, you just let me know if you need anything. I’m right over here.” But that’s not how a transition works.
So I would focus on making sure you have the right people on the board bus. That’s where I would start.
Elizabeth McIsaac: A lot of what you have said assumes, I think everything that you have said assumes, that there’s not an internal candidate ready to take the helm. Can you share some thoughts around that? What are the challenges around that? Are there challenges for the person themselves bringing forward their candidacy? How do they talk about succession planning behind them? How do we think about that?
Joan Garry: Yes, it’s complicated. I actually work with a client where the CEO is leaving, and I also coach members of the leadership team as well. One of the members of the leadership team is applying for the job, and he’s quite a viable candidate for the job. I actually facilitated a management team meeting where we put it in the room and we said, “Tom [name changed], you are both the head of programs, and you are auditioning for this job with your colleagues. You have to remember that what you say lands differently today than it did before you applied.” So talking about that and naming that, I feel like it’s really, really important, and it’s actually opened that group up in a different sort of way.
I do want to say one thing that I caution. Oftentimes, boards will take the path of least resistance and make that internal hire, sometimes without even a search. I would caution nonprofits to think differently. The board has to own the choice, and a search can really ensure that they own the search, rather than taking the path of least resistance.
The path of least resistance is also risk management. “Well, if that person doesn’t get the job, they might leave, then I have that job to also fill. The people who work for that person are going to be upset that that person didn’t get the job.” So then we go into drama, and intrigue, and boards do not like any of that.
I would just say – name the internal candidacy. That’s why I have here that leadership development is an important component of this. If I have internal candidates that I think could make viable candidates, I’m going to invest in them. When I was at GLAAD, there was a candidate who could have been a viable candidate and was interested, but there were skill gaps. We made a list of those skill gaps, and we worked on them. She wanted to learn how to fundraise. We took her out on asks. As it turned out, she did not get that job, but she got another job that she was at for 14 years as a CEO.
So it’s also about leadership development as well. If you think you have an internal candidate who could be a viable candidate, what would have to be true for them to be a slam dunk candidate? Then invest in those things.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Is there any risk? So your advice is, even if you have a good candidate, do the search, because then you own the decision. But then if the internal candidate doesn’t get it, is there anything that you can do to mitigate their departure, or that’s just stuff that you live with, you live with the decisions?
Joan Garry: I think boards do way too much to work around and mitigate those situations. And it becomes, what is that thing that hangs around your neck, as a newbie-
Elizabeth McIsaac: Albatross.
Joan Garry: That’s it. Yes, albatross. Thank you, Elizabeth. It becomes this albatross. I’m the new person, and the board has decided that the new person is really quite superior to the internal candidate. But they give the internal raise, or a promotion, or God forbid, a stay bonus for larger organizations. Thus, tying my hands as the incoming CEO to hold that person accountable, because they have a favoured runner-up “Miss USA” status.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Haven’t heard that one before. I like it.
Joan Garry: You know what I mean, though.
Elizabeth McIsaac: No, it’s exactly right. As we think about the passing of the baton, there’s an exiting CEO. Is there a rule for the current CEO in the hiring process and the recruitment process, or should they stay completely out of it? That’s the first, and I’ve got a second-
Joan Garry: Okay, so that’s actually a really easy answer. Should they be involved? NO! No, because they’re the ED. They’re the drivers. They will drive. Their voice carries so much more weight than anybody else around the table. This goes back to what we were just talking about, Elizabeth, is that the board has to own this decision.
So, do I think that the ED should have a voice? I do. What I often suggest is that the executive director meet with the search committee and have a conversation about the skills, experience, attributes, profile needed. Who might you want to be looking for in the search, based on my experience of doing this job?
When I left GLAAD, I wrote a four-page memo about the different attributes and competencies needed for the CEO, and I think it was quite helpful. That’s how I would get staff input as well. You can do it with an anonymous survey, or something like that. I am the chair of the search committee. I want to reach out to the staff. They have a lot of points of view. I want them to feel empowered to have a voice, so I get it all upfront.
I think that makes a big difference in the kinds of questions that get asked, but I think it gets very murky when an ED or a staff member is an active participant in a search committee.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, fast-forward a little bit, now the search is over. What are your thoughts about the former ED or outgoing CEO going on the board?
Joan Garry: I really don’t like that idea very much at all.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Think it out a little bit for us.
Joan Garry: Boards do all kinds of gymnastics to hang onto an outgoing founder or executive director, such as put them on the board. I mean, I have seen every crazy combination and permutation of ways in which board members have said, “We have to keep that former person close.”
I believe it does not offer a new executive director sufficient runway to actually create and own their jobs. Especially if I as the new executive director arrives to find dust bunnies, or dust bunnies on top of dust bunnies in the organization that actually were left behind by my predecessor.
I had a situation with one client who came in as a CEO, and the board did not want to lose the prior ED. So, they put the prior ED on staff. The new ED came in and found out that the organization was a financial hot mess, caused by the predecessor, who is on her staff, limiting her ability to be transparent about what’s going on and how she’s solving for the problems. Ultimately, she had to lay off her predecessor, because she did not have the finances to be able to support that position. That’s messy.
The only way that it works to keep a former executive director involved, and this is exponentially heightened if this person is a founder, is if it is a very finite set of responsibilities, and that I am accountable to the new CEO.
So I’m the outgoing CEO, and there’s a campaign to raise money for an X, Y, Z. And I’ve been charged with raising $50,000 or $100,000 for that thing, and I am accountable to the new CEO. That’s the only way in which it works, is if it’s, “I’m going to write the business plan for the scale,” or something like that. I would much rather that the new CEO to meet with the outgoing CEO, and try to define what kind of a role I, as the new CEO, wants from me, rather than the board actually potentially tying my hands by deciding in advance of my arrival.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Good words of wisdom. Obviously, there’s always going to be particular circumstances and cases, but these are really important guardrails for thinking it through.
Joan Garry: I think that’s true. I understand the board’s interest, especially if the person has been a fantastic leader, but-
Elizabeth McIsaac: Legitimately holds relationships that are incredibly important to the organization. So finding a way to manage that process.
Joan Garry: Right. Now, I believe that organizational readiness also includes a step which is about how you institutionalize those relationships so that… I mean, I remember at GLAAD people saying, “I’m sorry you’re leaving. Because you know I give money because of you.” I would gently push back and say, “I really thought that you gave money because you believe deeply in the mission of our organization.” I actually did some fundraising where I secured multi-year gifts during my last six months, so the new ED could just then steward those relationships, and not have to immediately arrive, and ask for renewals and upgrades. So it’s a case-by-case thing.
It’s an odd thing when a fantastic executive director has nothing to do with the organization afterwards. So it’s a balance. You just want to make sure at the end of the day, am I making a decision as a search committee, a transition committee, as an executive committee, or as a board, am I making any kind of decision that could any way thwart the success of the new rock star I’m about to hire?
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, you touched on this, and this is a question in the Q&A. I just want you to go a bit deeper. The institutionalization of these relationships, they’re long-term. Any more thoughts about how you transition successfully? You’ve given a couple of examples, but sometimes it’s fundraising, sometimes it’s advocacy, sometimes it’s GR, sometimes it’s the variety of things. I mean, I think the obvious answer is back to your very first or second good idea, which is two to three years planning. You start doing this work in advance as part of your thinking. But…
Joan Garry: Yes, the one thing I would add to that. I believe that you should actually go through the list of donors and funders, which are tied to your ED. And if your ED goes, is there any risk that money will not come to the organization? You actually color code them, red, yellow, green, or something like that.
Identify the reds, and you start to say, “Okay, so who are people in the organization who might begin to nurture and steward those people as well?” Small organizations don’t have a major gifts officer, right? They’re lucky if they have a development director. This is another place where a board comes into play.
I am a firm believer in board stewardship programs. For lots and lots of reasons, in building a culture of philanthropy on your board. But in this situation, for institutionalizing the relationships so that your ED, you as a donor understand that the organization is more than just the ED.
Then donors understand that, “Wow, that board member reached out to me and asked to have a cup of coffee to share some impact stories. They’re not asking for money. They’re just telling me a little bit about the kind of impact my gift has had this year.”
If we can start to steward our donors more, and use board members as stewards, then we institutionalize relationships. Then, the board members actually build and develop relationships with those donors themselves, which can then lead to, “Hey, you’ve been more in touch with this donor than I have. Why don’t you do the renewal?” Then all of a sudden, you’ve turned an ambassador, a champion board member, into a fundraiser.
This has exactly the same kind of benefit in terms of making a donor feel like there’s a lot of great people who are connected to this work. And that I, Joan, built a great team with a great board. It strengthens my resolve about my investment as a donor. So I think the big key in institutionalizing relationships, especially for smaller organizations, is starting a stewardship program with your board.
Elizabeth McIsaac: And that distributes the leadership profile of the organization, so it doesn’t all reside in the one person.
Joan Garry: Yes. That’s the idea here, is that you’re actually also trying to train your board to understand that they are leaders too.
Elizabeth McIsaac: And as a funder, I think the only… I’ve had just a handful of outreach efforts by board members, and mostly it’s been in time of crisis.
Joan Garry: Yep, yep. Absolutely.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, there’s something there.
Joan Garry: Yes. That’s why I have… We used to have these rather large scale galas. I advise every single one of my clients that they have board members work their galas. They’re given names and table numbers, and a little bit of information. And their job is to go… And I know it’s not a word, they’re ambassadors, and they need to go ambass at their six tables.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I just got a new word, a new verb for the lexicon. So this is a question around the actual act of the search, and there’s a couple of questions around the search itself. Is there a possible transition in the search or element of the search where the former ED is already starting to do some initial outreach, teasing out who’s out there, who’s a possible successor, and that they can hand over those names to the search committee? Is that a reasonable approach or is that bad practice? What do you think?
Joan Garry: I like that idea, actually. I had another client who, it was a succession plan. We did it in shorter than this amount of time because he had cancer and was part of a clinical trial. If it went well, he was cured. And if it did not go well, he could actually die.
And so we went through a very detailed succession plan that he and I built, and I poked and prodded him about, “Is there anybody out there that you think could do this job? Are there 10 people that you would want the search committee to talk to, who could lead you to the right candidate?” We had those names and contact numbers listed as part of that document.
So it’s just like donors and board members. Executive directors are excellent. They should be your single best source for people who are connected to the organization, who would like to be invited to come closer.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Yes, and nobody knows the job better.
Joan Garry: Exactly.
Elizabeth McIsaac: So, there’s a question around other board members. How does a board member resist a board chair who… And there’s one example here, but I think it’s just any undue influence on the process, who wants to pay the outgoing ED extra money to stay on after the new ED is hired? Or, I’m assuming the extension of this is a board chair who’s undue influence in the process at any stage. Are there good practices here?
Joan Garry: Whenever I hear questions like this, Elizabeth, the first question I always ask is, how did that person get to be board chair? Were we all asleep at the switch? Right? The selection of a board chair, there’s no more important choice other than the executive director than the board chair.
I talk about a thriving nonprofit, like a twin engine jet. With two engines, a board engine and a staff engine. Who’s sitting in that cockpit? The ED and the board chair. I think of them as having a kind of shared leadership, a partnership if you will. Set aside the hierarchical org chart.
I have had more people leave their jobs because they had board chairs who did not understand their jobs, did not take them seriously, or who micro-manage, whatever it might be.
So I think that that’s the first thing I would say is, if you have a board chair who’s exerting undue influence, you have to ask yourself, how did that person get that job? Make sure that your recruitment and governance work is in such a place that you are absolutely recruiting for people with leadership attributes. You can teach them lots of things, but leadership attributes, not so much.
I would like to think that your executive committee or your search committee… So the way that I always think about this, when somebody is engaging in undue influence, and they’re the board chair, so they’re probably the most powerful person at the table, is you can’t really decrease the power of their voice. You actually have to start to think about whose voices can I increase the volume on? I can’t decrease that person’s power. Can I increase the power by making sure the right people are on the executive committee or the right people are on the search committee to offset it? If that person is exerting undue influence, there probably has been a pattern. So you have to actually solve for that at the time you create the search committee.
Don’t just say, “Well, this board chair always exerts undue influence. I’m sure it’ll be different here.” It won’t be. In fact, when the stakes are higher, people are more likely to act out.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think you have twigged a question with someone who wants to know, “Can a board chair make an acceptable ED replacement?” I’m just going to elaborate on that question, because I think sometimes we see instances, especially in very small or very community-focused organizations, where the board chair may step in for a period or may actually put themselves forward. Is that necessarily a good or a bad thing?
Joan Garry: As long as soon as they indicate their interests, they step off the board. Right? You can’t wear both of those hats. So I think that, first things first. By the way, not everybody makes that assumption.
It is not necessarily bad. I mean, I have seen many executive directors, very successful ones who were previously board members of the organization. It depends entirely on who you’re looking for, and whether or not the board member who has applied has those skills, and experience, and attributes.
Again, you need a board that really understands that this is an important job and is okay having a hard conversation to say, “You didn’t make the cut.” Right? Board members, all of us in this universe, have to really dig in, and learn how to have hard conversations about almost everything.
But that’s what it does require. There are board members who get these jobs because the other board members were not ready, willing, or able to have those difficult conversations.
All you have to do is keep your eye on your client, keep your eye on the communities you serve, and say, “Am I making a choice that, if my clients were sitting at this table, this is what they would want for our organization?” If you think about it in that context, it gets easier to have hard conversations.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Is there a role for donors, funders, or government in the succession planning process itself? And I say government. In our Canadian context, there’s a lot of government funding to the nonprofit sector.
Joan Garry: Sure. In the US, as well. Because I actually deeply believe that one of the things that makes a nonprofit different from a for-profit in my mind is that nonprofits have… I think of it as, because I’ve been in both spaces. I was in the for-profit sector for 15 years before I moved over to GLAAD. I have to treat my donors like partners. I have to treat my board chair like a partner. So this idea of partnership is part of the DNA of a nonprofit.
Do I think a funder should be involved in the search itself? No, I don’t actually. But do I think that if you are going to really understand what the organization needs, what this organization is in its particular arena or sector, if you’re dealing with housing insecurity, or you’re dealing with disability services, whatever it might be, having an understanding from the funders, tapping into a couple of key funders as part of your assessment of what the organization needs and what the organization is in that sector could be extremely valuable for a search committee.
“Here’s one of the things Joan did that was especially good when she was an executive director.” And “here’s a gap that I think a new person could really fill. Here’s an opportunity in this sector that we see for a person who brings these kinds of experiences or expertise.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: Are there any good ideas around calling that time’s up? You have a leader that’s been in place, they’ve been there a long time. It’s not about kicking them out, but it’s bringing the succession conversation forward to them.
Joan Garry: That’s such a good question, Elizabeth. So this is the executive director. I call this a, “Put a fork in her. She’s done.”
Elizabeth McIsaac: Okay, you’re thinking about your turkey already.
Joan Garry: I am. I’m thinking about my turkey. That is completely true. Here’s the suggestion I would make. Remember my suggestion about having there be priorities, and having the CEO be more accountable to the board around those priorities? I’d start to turn up the heat. Just like you do when you’re trying to manage somebody out, you actually turn up the heat. You might not put an ED on a performance improvement plan. But I, as an outgoing executive director, start to feel like the board is not that happy with me, or that the board, there’s some tension here. Maybe I get it, maybe I don’t get it. But I think that is the single best way for me to think to myself, “You know what? I may not understand what they’re doing,” but sort of the, “I’m too old for this,” starts to kick in. And I might call the question –
“You clearly are not that happy with me. Maybe we should talk about my going sooner with some sort of a package,” or something. I think probably the best way to do it is to actually, sort of turn the heat up on my pot. Really, I’m using all these cooking metaphors.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I know where you’re going after this.
Joan Garry: But to turn the heat up on me, to raise the expectations, when in fact I’m actually sort of sliding out. So I hope that’s helpful.
Elizabeth McIsaac: I think it is. I mean, these are all things that we have to work through. At the end of the day, the better the relationship, the more honest the conversation can be, the better off. That goes right back to one of your first points around good organizational hygiene. Is the organization working well? Is there a good open relationship with the board? Does the board know its job? Does the ED know their job? Does everybody know what they’re supposed to be doing, and are they engaging the staff and the partners in an effective way? Then you’ve got the runway to do this stuff well.
Joan Garry: Right. Maybe seven things does feel too daunting, right? Pick one. Get started. Just have a conversation with your executive committee, and just talk about this stuff openly, and pick something and just get started.
Elizabeth McIsaac: Thank you again, Joan. And thank you to our audience for joining us today, and for your questions. Apologies for all of those who didn’t get their questions answered. There were truly a ton of questions, which tells us something about the importance of this topic.