Staying the Course When the Legendary Leader Departs

Staying the Course When the Legendary Leader Departs

4 steps organizations should consider prior to a beloved leader’s departure

Twenty years after creating what is now a $10 million environmental advocacy group, the founding director has chosen to retire. As the driving force, the director’s energy and foresightedness have been the primary face of this nonprofit organization as it lobbied to protect local public areas and encourage sustainable community programs. Employees and volunteers have come and gone during those years, but the leader steadfastly remained at the forefront.

Organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofit, are frequently faced with this dilemma. How can the organization replace a charismatic founder-entrepreneur and still maintain growth? What type of leader is required for this new phase? When possible, the search should begin at least six months prior to the official date of retirement. 

Step 1: Establish a Search Committee

The Board of Directors should establish a search committee comprised of 5-7 key individuals who are very familiar with the needs of the organization and are committed to the demands of the search process. The first meeting of the search committee should involve a review of the status of the organization and a definition of the qualities desired in the next leader. The passion and talents of a founder may have carried the mission to its current level but may not be sufficient to elevate the organization to its ultimate potential. A different skill set may be sought for the new leader.

The committee should formalize a job description and create a profile of the preferred leadership style, expertise, education and experience of prospective candidates..

Step 2: Hire an Executive Search Firm that Specializes in Nonprofits

The search committee should select an executive search firm that has a wide network of contacts and success in placing transformative leaders. Beginning with a discussion of the organization’s mission, strategic goals, and culture, a qualified search firm should work with you to define the key outcomes and behavioral characteristics expected in your next leader. They work with your search committee to define the search timeline and project milestones.

Executive search firms follow a rigorous process that includes drawing upon their expansive networks and research methodologies to uncover both active and passive candidates. The job is posted in relevant professional publications and professional association sites and a slate of candidates is developed.

Using an executive search firm ensures complete objectivity in the final selection. Often internal candidates and board referrals need to be considered and while some may have qualifications that apply, the objective is to find the best fit. This is accomplished with a rigorous assessment and comparison of candidates.

Using a qualified executive search firm ensures that every candidate has a positive experience. Your chosen search firm should act as an extension of your organization and represent you and your brand in a thoughtful, first class manner..

Step 3: Honor Thy Founder

If the transition is to be a smooth one, the Board of Directors should prepare the way. The best approach is to show that the core mission and legacy will remain in place after the founder’s departure. The organization should sincerely and publicly recognize the founder’s contributions, which helps to ensure a successful transition.

Step 4: A New Beginning

Once a candidate is hired, a transition period will occur during which the new leader becomes oriented to the position and works with the team to review existing projects, sources of income, and define future objectives. During this time, the new hire will meet with board members, funders and key community stakeholders to ensure the continuation of successful projects and derive input for new ones.

Aside from the 4 steps above, what else should your organization do when your legendary leader retires? Share your initial thoughts in the comments below!