An executive transition should be managed by strategic, regular and effective communication that recognizes potential opportunities as well as risks. Everyone needs to be in the loop — the board, the staff, the funders and partners — to give the impression of cohesion and inclusion, and to reassure all the stakeholders that this uncertain period is being managed proactively and diligently.
Get Organized, Prepared and on the Same Page
Create a few central talking points that everyone can feel good about. These points should:
- Honor and celebrate the departing leader‘s achievements.
- Stress the positive points where the organization is in good shape (financial health, relationships, programs, etc.).
- Provide assurance to your stakeholders that the board and staff have the full confidence of the departing CEO, and that the board is moving proactively and deliberately to ensure a smooth transition.
- Provide a timeline (NAME will continue to lead the organization while the board conducts a thoughtful and comprehensive search for the next ED, whom we expect will join us in the spring of 2015). This should include a statement about interim leadership.
It is important to make sure that the board and departing CEO agree on all these points before they are released!
During an executive director search, always keep your stakeholders up to date and involved (although be clear about their role and whether that includes any decision making input or authority on the new hire). Ask them for recommendations on candidates or referral sources. If the timeline changes, tell them. When certain benchmarks are reached, like the final interview process, let them know. Finally, consider launching a “legacy” fundraising campaign that honors the accomplishments of the departing CEO and encourages support for the next chapter. This combats the “I’ll wait and see” phenomenon that is common among donors. It’s easy for them to postpone a decision for a regular ask, but it’s harder to turn down the opportunity to honor the person they have been investing in for the past number of years.
It is impossible to exaggerate how important communication is once the executive director search has concluded and you’ve chosen a new leader. How you announce and when you announce will set the tone for your organization’s new era.
First, examine the possible vehicles you’ll use to relay the message, including:
- In-person meetings
- Personal phone calls
- Personal letters or emails
- A joint letter from the departing ED and the board chair or transition chair
- A dedicated section on the website (Meet Our New Executive Director!)
Next, consider who will receive these communications, including:
- Key funders and donors
- Key partners
- Secondary donors and funders
- The public (including your full email list)
How Is the Message Distributed and By Whom?
There must be message cohesion to avoid the release of bad or poorly timed information. Establish message liaisons, represented by a diverse selection of the board and staff, to relay the message to each specific group. Hint: Strictly regulate the timing of these releases, establish an order of who should be told first, and put a plan in place for the liaison to return with feedback.
Dedicate a point person to communicate feedback from the public and another to handle questions from the staff. Make the board available for informal sessions with staff members who want to voice concerns personally. Finally, always make an anonymous hotline or comments box available for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking on the record.
With transition planning, communication and preparation can mean the difference between a bold leap into a new era, or a clumsy stumble through a difficult and tumultuous period in which resentment and confusion leads to the loss of talent and money. Pitch transition not as a time of fear and uncertainty, but as an opportunity for the entire organization to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments under the departing leader, and to recommit to the organization’s mission and vision.
This is a time to elevate your brand, to deliver your key messages and to be proactive by reaching out to thousands of people through networking and recruiting.