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A Leadership Transition Management Case Study: The Center for Justice and Accountability

Olive Grove recently worked with The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), an international human rights organization, during its leadership transition and search for a new executive director (ED). We share insights here from that search to assist organizations and their boards in preparing for their own transitions in leadership.

Center for Justice and Accountability


CJA is internationally recognized for its efforts in pursuing justice on behalf of victims of torture and abuse. Over the years, the organization attracted a team of committed attorneys, knowledgeable and devoted board members and advisors, pro bono attorneys, donors and other partners to carry out its work. The executive director had spent a great deal of time and energy in growing CJA’s influence and capabilities during her nine years leading the organization.

In the eighth year of her tenure, the ED began thinking about transitioning out of her role. She contacted Olive Grove for advice, as she wanted to ensure that the transition was smooth and that the board had time to plan and manage the process. While we had a few early conversations with her, she was clear that the board would be the client.

The Challenge

Although we were hired to work with the board on a search to bring in a new executive director, the initial challenge was to understand the health of the organization, from various perspectives. We probed into CJA’s financial health, standing in the human rights field, what the culture was like, how decisions were made, expectations of staff and board during the transition, the board’s vision for the future, and whether there was anything broken inside the organization. We also wanted to check for either consensus among board members regarding the CJA’s challenges and opportunities.

Through this 360 assessment we found an organization of incredible stability held in very high regard in the human rights field, by those who partnered with CJA on critical litigation, policymakers, donors, staff and board. Most important was that the board had a clear sense of where things stood in the organization and where it needed to be in the future. This was due largely to the executive director’s clear focus on CJA’s mission, and working with the board and staff so they understood the mandate as well. We did not find anything broken, but did discover that there were things the executive director needed to attend to before her departure. So, we developed an offboarding plan that was jointly managed by the board chair and ED.

In addition, staff members, who were an integral part of the organization and were deeply interested in the new leadership, needed to be brought into the search process early on. The senior managers formed an advisory committee that reviewed applications and provided input to the board search committee on the key attributes and qualities sought in the new ED. They also interviewed the candidates and provided invaluable feedback that informed the search committee’s interviews and subsequent deliberations on the finalists with the full board.

The Outcome

A rigorous process led to a thoughtful consideration of the candidates who could lead CJA into the future envisioned by the board and staff. The search led the search committee look broadly at a dynamic human rights landscape where other international organizations were undergoing change as well, and the committee remained steadfast in its commitment toward advancing the mission through litigation and public policy while being open to opportunities that could complement its current portfolio of work. That clarity of CJA’s mission led the board to a candidate who articulated fidelity to the core work and the promise of serving in a larger strategic role in the human rights field.

Key Takeaways

  • Planning makes for a better result. The transition planning began long before the search process commenced. As the ED considered her departure, she sought advice, then informed the board chair of her decision and committed to staying through the transition. Olive Grove worked with the ED and search committee to plan the transition calendar, including the key points in the process when stakeholders needed to hear about progress of the transition. Planning provided the space to the search committee to be more reflective about what the organization needed in its next leader and reduced the level of anxiety about the ED’s departure.

  • The Board needs to own the process. Often, a board will rely on the departing executive to define the parameters of the transition and they become beholden to the person rather than the institution. In this case, the CJA board recognized that hiring a new executive was its principal responsibility. It established expectations for itself as well as the outgoing ED and the incoming ED, and the staff. The search committee was also flexible, and recognized it needed input from the staff earlier in the process to test assumptions and receive other perspectives while not yielding its responsibilities.

  • Ensure the staff are engaged. The staff are essential stakeholders and can provide valuable perspectives in the transition process. However, they are often brought in at the end of the search to meet finalists and provide perfunctory input. The CJA search committee recognized the staff had as great an interest in who their new leader would be as well as the process by which that person was to be selected. By engaging them early, the staff added a dimension to the candidate reviews and ultimately helped build support for the new leader throughout the organization.

  • Take time to celebrate the departing executive. The board can become focused almost exclusively on the task of identifying and bringing in a new leader and pay less attention to the current executive. The CJA board took time to celebrate its ED publicly, at board and staff meetings, and in individual meetings with her. Olive Grove advises search clients to take the time to recognize and articulate the contributions EDs have made to show that they appreciate their efforts. At CJA the ED had, over a nine-year tenure, dramatically increased fundraising, created a significant reserve, and hired new staff to manage a growing portfolio of work. Our role was to remind the board to create the time and space during the transition for celebrations of these successes.

  • Take time to set up the incoming executive for success. The work continues after the board has selected its new leader. CJA and Olive Grove worked together to create an onboarding plan for the new ED. At the beginning of the transition, the board and search committee chairs discussed how important it was to ensure the new ED knew what the board expected during the first six months. While the search committee developed the onboarding plan, the board chair managed it and met or spoke with the ED regularly. Olive Grove provided coaching to the ED for the first three months to help the ED integrate into the organization. Onboarding was the capstone to a successful transition.

You can learn more about how you can auspiciously incorporate leadership transition and succession planning into your organization with our complimentary eBook, “Proactively Plan for the Inevitable: A Guide to Leadership Transition and Succession Planning.” In it, you’ll find our six-step approach to leadership transition, as well as a number of tips on how you can build succession planning into your organization today.

About The Center for Justice and Accountability: CJA is an international human rights organization dedicated to deterring torture and other sever human rights violations. Through litigation, CJA holds individual perpetrators accountable for abuses, develops human rights laws and advances the rue of law in transitioning countries.
Anthony Tansimore

Anthony Tansimore

For more than twenty-five years Anthony Tansimore has been a senior leader in the nonprofit sector. In his various public and social sector roles he supported collaborative efforts among nonprofits and leadership development for management teams. Throughout his career Anthony has focused on assisting individual leaders and teams in becoming more effective in their own work.