The departure of an association CEO doesn’t need to feel like jumping off a cliff. With a solid succession plan and clear roles for the board, staff, and outgoing executive, an association can traverse the leadership transition with confidence and continuity.
Despite our best efforts to flatten hierarchies, foster teams, and build sustainable operations, still little in association management shocks the system quite like the departure of a CEO.
Even in the best circumstances, such as when a well-liked executive provides plenty of notice, transition can be daunting, says Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of The Leaders’ Haven: “The moment that first message goes out, whether it’s an internal or external message, instantaneously in that moment, everything changes.”
It’s a change every association ought to prepare for. Baby boomers are retiring in increasing numbers, and the nonprofit sector has a high rate of executive turnover: A2015 Bridgespan Group study found one in four nonprofit C-suite jobs had been vacated in the previous two years, and nearly as many execs said they planned to leave in the coming two years. Clearly, a head-in-the-sand approach is perilous.
A typical executive hiring process, done right, can take six to nine months. “When you’re a staff member and you’re talking about six to nine months where you might not feel comfortable about your future, that’s a really long time for people,” says Matthew D’Uva, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP).
Sending off one executive with grace while setting up the next for success—and keeping the association running smoothly in the meantime—is, to say the least, complicated. But Nancy Green, FASAE, CAE, a veteran association executive currently serving as interim executive director at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, identifies three fundamental goals to strive for: “continuity, confidence, and communication.”
When you’re a staff member and you’re talking about six to nine months where you might not feel comfortable about your future, that’s a really long time for people.
1. Plan Now
The uncertainty that creeps in after a CEO’s departure is announced means planning ahead is crucial. “If the day you think about it is the day you know there’s going to be a change, it’s too late,” says Christine McEntee, FASAE, CAE, executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union.
McEntee and Mills have collaborated on educating associations about succession planning. They identify three separate plans an association should have in place and which the board should regularly review:
Strategic plan: to serve during a transition as a guide for decision making
Succession plan: to outline how the association will identify its needs in a new leader and conduct the search and hiring process
Transition plan: to detail the practical matters of the outgoing CEO’s exit, transferring duties and maintaining operations, and onboarding the new executive
Green suggests keeping a search committee to seven to nine people and selecting board members and volunteers from key stakeholder groups—ideally outlined in the succession plan—to assure observers that “the right people had some say in how the person got picked” and to set the new executive up for success.
Green also recommends a transition team, three senior staff and three board members “to represent the interests of the organization, manage communication, and collectively make decisions about the transition.”
McEntee says an executive transition is a classic exercise in change management. “From the very beginning of announcing it is when you should be thinking about the key messages you want to be sending about your organization—externally, internally with the staff, and with the members,” she says.
2. Cover the Interim
Grooming an internal successor to the CEO is rare in associations—less than 30 percent of C-suite positions in Bridgespan’s 2015 study were filled internally. If the departing executive will leave before the search will be completed, the association must decide how to fill the chief staff role in the interim.
For a short period between CEOs—a month or two, perhaps—the executive seat could simply remain empty with duties spread among other staff, but, for longer gaps, “the buck needs to stop with somebody,” says D’Uva.
In 2015, D’Uva left his position atop SOCAP International for IASP. SOCAP hired an external executive specializing in short-term transitions to step in as interim CEO as D’Uva was leaving, and IASP had done the same prior to his arrival. In both cases, he says, the arrangement allowed the association’s board of directors to focus on the search for its next permanent leader.
An external interim CEO can provide an objective, consultant-style perspective during that time, but major strategic decisions are best put off until the new executive’s arrival. “For example, we have a senior-level GR position opening here, and a lot of CEOs like to shape the government relations operation,” Green says. “I’d rather not hire that position and then make the next person live with it.”
An interim CEO drawn from existing staff can bring cost savings and familiarity with the association that an outside hire would lack, but this approach would require the elevated person’s original duties to be filled somehow. And, McEntee adds, “if they want somebody on the inside for a period of time, then they have be very clear about whether that person is going to get the job or not.”
3. Who Does What?
Once an association has put its succession plan into action and has decided who will fill the corner office for the interim, the outgoing executive, board, and staff all have some clear tasks ahead of them to make the transition successful.
Outgoing CEO. The final weeks of a CEO’s tenure can cement his or her legacy by ensuring the staff, board, and incoming executive are set up for success. That means plenty of practical knowledge transfer—whether via documentation, phone conversations, in-person meetings, or all three—as well as conveying the intangible nuances of leading the organization.
“I think the most important guidance that a former CEO can leave is about the dynamics of these relationships with stakeholder groups and key partners,” Green says. “You can really lose ground when you change execs.”
Board of directors. Job one for the board is to find the association’s next chief. If it plans to use a search firm or recruiter, then the board must be clear about what it wants in a leader as well as the current state and culture of the organization, both good and bad.
Recruiters “can only relay what has been shared with them by the board,” says Mills. “So, we need to train our boards to be very open and candid with [recruiters] and the candidates after they do the heavy lifting of reviewing the three plans.” This ensures that, “as new CEOs come onboard, they’ve been really, really well-prepared for whatever the priorities are and for the environment in which they will be undertaken.”
Staff. The association’s staff can prepare information for the incoming executive about the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and inner workings. D’Uva asked IASP staff for that input before his arrival. “I could hear from them what some of their pressure points were and what some of their obstacles were,” he says.
Of course, the transition isn’t over when the new CEO is hired. It is merely the next stage of the change-management process, Mills says. The board and staff will be critical to the new executive’s efforts to manage time and establish relationships in the first year.
“They have those relationships already, and so it frequently doesn’t dawn on the board that, oh, we need to be partners in helping our new CEO build that,” says Mills. “And the other thing that is so important is that those people who are investing in the organization see the confidence the board has in the new person.”