December 15, 2018
 
Great Leadership Transitions Ensure Organizational Success

On any given day, almost one-quarter of nonprofits are facing a transition in leadership. Some will manage the transition well and enjoy sustained organizational excellence, but many will fall victim to common, avoidable errors.

The systematic, well-explained approach presented in the new book, Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence, provides the tools not only for a successful transition, but for an effective, focused organization at any stage in its lifespan.

Co-authors Barry Dym, Susan Egmont, and Laura Watkins—all well-known in the Massachusetts nonprofit sector—clearly state their purpose at the beginning: how to manage the change from one leader to the next in a way that gives leaders and the organizations they serve the best possible chance to succeed.

With 20-25% of executive directorships in or near transition (often preceded by periods of contention), tens of thousands of organizations are at a vulnerable time when “conflict and chaos can be so unrestrained that the growth of the organization is seriously impaired for years to come.”

The authors acknowledge that most organizations look for a quick end to this uncomfortable period, but they make the case that slow and steady surely wins this race. They encourage nonprofits to first explore why they find themselves in transition. The culprit, they suggest, may be our confusing expectations as much as leaders’ ineffectuality. Conflict between CEOs and board presidents is another major factor.

Significant space is devoted to making the case for thoughtfully managing a leadership transition. This is not gratuitious. Even at their best, transitions are costly and absorb time and energy from boards and staff, especially to protect credibility and relationships with funders and other partners.

But when a transition is rushed, poorly planned, or simply not managed at all, tell-tale failures result: “when it does not further long-term strategic aims, when it leads to a brief, unproductive tenure, when it does not unite the organization around future development, and when organizational problems that led up to the leader’s departure remain more or less intact."

With sections on governance, strategy, and communications (internal and external) pitfalls, some nonprofits may find the book to be a mirror that they’d prefer not to look into. But rather than just reflecting an organization’s warts, the book offers many do-able remedies and strategies for recovery.

For example, a chapter on good governance offers a sample board self-assessment checklist. The chapter on managing the search process includes a checklist for the outgoing CEO and solid advice for filling a search committee.

A chapter entitled “Alignment” illustrates a major strength of the book: it clarifies the fundamentals of effective leadership that are so often overlooked, beginning with this guiding principle: “The fundamental challenge of leadership is to align organizations in the services of their missions, as articulated in strategies.” In the ensuing “unpacking” of that statement, the authors deliver truisms about vision and mission that are crucial to any nonprofit, regardless of whether they are in transition.

This sort of nimble transition from theory to on-the ground realities is likely a result of the three authors’ vast experience on the ground; this is not an ivory-tower group (although all three have experience in education, including Dym’s current position as executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership at Boston University). As explained in their notes on research methods, the book’s sources include interviews with 17 nonprofit board presidents, 2 CEOs, 33 school leaders, and numerous focus groups about their transition experiences.

In addition, the authors bring their experiences with executive coaching and other nonprofit clients. Susan Egmont is principal of Egmont Associates, a national full-service executive search firm specializing in CEO searches for nonprofits. Laura Watkins, former CEO of Patriot Trail Girl Scout Council in Boston, is partner and founder of The Cognitas Group, which helps clients and organizations develop leadership skills.

The appendices contain invaluable tools: sample leadership transition plans (which start, aptly, with the question, “What does success look like?”), sample job descriptions, and extensive evaluation templates (versions for boards and for CEOs).

By the time they reach these back-of-the-book gems, readers will likely have experienced a transition themselves: from panicked, reluctant, or simply without tools to fully understanding of the pace, strategies, and especially the reasons for carefully and successfully managing this critical period.

Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence is published by Pearson Education, Inc.

Reviewed by Susan Nicholl
June 2011


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