Successful Transitions – a program that works

The possibility of a long-term, trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.

Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement some day in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans, but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organizations size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).

I designed the program to fit this variety of organization situations. During the three group sessions, I presented the core concepts of succession planning, but also allowed time for in depth discussion. Despite their varying backgrounds, the executive directors and board representatives supported each other and had many insights to share.

The first topic was how succession planning looks at far more than just the current executive director. It needs to focus on the entire organization, and how leadership is being developed among staff and board alike. Additional discussion covered how succession planning creates conditions for current ED to succeed, and ensures a sound infrastructure is in place for an emergency, vacation, or a search for a new executive. Each attendee shared stories of how a lack of succession planning had led to a crisis situation for an organization.

In the individual coaching sessions, we explored each executive director’s specific questions. The individual session topics ranged from dealing with a challenging board chair, to exploring the concept of co-executive directors. During the individual sessions, I also answered questions about developing the actual succession plan.

The final piece of the program is a customized training for the board of directors on succession planning. For the founding executive director who is retiring soon, I led a discussion with the board on how they could best support the incoming executive director. For a director who has no plans to leave, the board presentation focused on how succession planning was really about leadership development and sustainability for the organization, which would benefit them now.

Successful Transitions was funded by four local foundations, Cooper Foundation, Woods Charitable Fund, Lincoln Community Foundation and the Community Health Endowment. The program was sponsored by Cause Collective, which strengthens nonprofits in Lincoln through collaboration, education and advocacy.

Melissa Filipi, executive director for Community Services Fund, is one of the directors who has no plans to leave her organization, but saw succession planning as important. She said, ““While we are not facing a transition in the foreseeable future, I felt that having a solid plan in place that captured best practices and common steps would be valuable for Community Services Fund. I want to ensure that when I leave, we have set a solid framework for a smooth transition and future success. We approached this as more than a plan for the Executive Director’s departure by incorporating sustainability and strategic planning into the discussions. Any transition whether staff or board will involve clear discussions about the skills and attributes needed to move CSF’s strategic plan forward.”

Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director at Dimensions, said, “The Successful Transitions program was an exceptionally valuable experience that helped Dimensions Foundation begin thoughtful planning toward a future transition for a long-time executive director. As we learned, it’s so helpful to begin this process years in advance of the actual transition. Ingrid Kirst is an excellent facilitator who ran the program well and shared a wealth of valuable resources. We very much appreciated the opportunity.”

A second round of Successful Transitions will begin in April 2020, with registration beginning in February. I am also available to customize this training for organizations. Please contact me for more information.

Change is Hard

Change is Hard! How to Make It Easier for Everyone

We all deal with changes in different ways. What significantly affects one person is no big deal to another. The same event has various impacts on different people. For example, someone leaving a job will be thrilled at the new opportunities coming, while a co-worker is devastated to lose a fantastic colleague. At an organization with a new executive director starting, one of her program managers could be excited at the chance to work with someone new, while another manager is afraid of someone coming in and demanding to run programs in a new way.
Change is especially evident when an executive director leaves their position. This transition will affect everyone’s work load and level of comfort, but often people expect that a change is affecting others the same way as it does them. I often see this when a board has known about an upcoming departure for a month or longer, and staff don’t. When the staff are told, board members expect them to be ready to move on to the next step right away, forgetting that they also needed time to process this change.
William Bridges, in his book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, provides a good framework for thinking about change and how we can manage transitions better. We often want to get through a change quickly and move on, but Bridges explains why that doesn’t lead to the best results. If we take the time to plan for a good transition, the results will be much better for everyone involved.
Change is an external event that happens. A change in jobs, a move to a new home, the birth of a child. You can usually define when the change happened. The transition related to that change is what takes time. The transition is internal, as we process through the change and what it means for us. It’s a psychological process of accepting the change, considering the opportunities, and then welcoming the new situation.
There are three premises to the model that Bridges presents. First, there can’t be a beginning until there is an ending. Something has to change, and that change has to be processed internally, before the new thing can happen. Second, there’s a neutral zone between the ending and the beginning, and it is important to give it time, but not too much time. Finally, we all go through transitions at varying speeds and need to recognize this in each other.
Every transition starts with an ending. What are you losing? What will you keep? It is important to take the time to communicate in the ending stage, especially to encourage people to talk about their feelings. There can be feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and uncertainty about a big change. If those feelings aren’t expressed, they can linger, and make the new beginning a struggle. It’s important to think about how to communicate a change. You won’t be able to give out all the details, but keeping everyone in the loop as much as possible is critical for helping them feel comfortable with the change. You should also think about how to create a good ending. What rituals and events will make it easier to end this stage. A going away party? A chance for a discussion about what working together has meant to each person?
After the ending, there needs to be time for a neutral zone. This is the in between time, when you are beginning to create new processes, but don’t know what they will be yet. It doesn’t yet feel comfortable. Confusion, uncertainty, and impatience characterize the neutral zone. Everyone has anxiety about their new role or identity as it relates to the change. Remind them of the organizational goals to help them stay grounded. The neutral zone can also can be time of great creativity, and encourage new ways of thinking. It’s a time for brainstorming and bringing up ideas that have been percolating. Setting some short term goals in the neutral zone will allow for quick wins, and help everyone feel like progress is being made. When an executive director resigns, it is important for the board to spend time here before starting hiring process. They can take stock of current situation, and then explore new opportunities, or ways to make a better impact. What is best for the organization long term? Should it continue as it has been, or should it change in some way? Again, communication is key for helping everyone move through this stage.
For some organizations, having an interim executive director during the neutral zone is important. When a long term leader, or an unsuccessful leader leaves, everyone needs time to process the past and their hopes for the future. An interim director will be a steward of the organization and the transition process. They can provide leadership and allow the board the time to conduct a quality search and hiring process. They can make small improvements in the organization’s structure and operations that will benefit everyone. Finally, they can help everyone discuss their emotions and concerns so that board and staff are ready to welcome the new executive director.
The final stage is the beginning. People have accepted the change and are ready to move forward. They are seeing the impact of the small changes they’ve already made. There’s excitement about the future and new possibilities. People are open to learning and new ideas. When the new executive director starts, staff are ready for fresh ideas and improvements.
It is important to remember, that even if the change has happened and most people are at the beginning stage, not everyone is. Checking in with individuals and helping them continue to process the transition is still beneficial, rather than assuming they are ready.
Take some time to create a good pathway for change and the results will be worth that investment.

Steps of an Executive Director Search

For many small nonprofit boards, hiring a search firm to find their next executive director simply isn’t an option financially. Organizations can do the search themselves, but should involve people in the process who have experience in searches, and to follow best practices. What follows is an overview of the process that will result in the best possible hire on a budget.

Read moreSteps of an Executive Director Search

The Art of Gathering – book review

The Art of Gathering

How We Meet and Why It Matters

By Priya Parker

After reading this excellent book, I understand much better why some gatherings work, and some don’t. Why a too large room changes the atmosphere of a meeting. Why just allowing people to wander off at the end of a three day retreat feels like such a let down. Whether you are organizing a small get together of friends, or a large conference, this book will help you connect people with each other better.

Priya Parker has organized her share of gatherings and has many lessons to share. She starts by having you think about the true purpose of your gathering. Why do you want to have a birthday party? How can a networking event be more than just that? Can people be encouraged to ask for help with a vexing problem? Have a defined outcome, not just an event because you feel you should have an event.

She then walks through each step of the event. Who you invite to your meeting matters. It is OK to keep the guest list limited, because more people doesn’t necessarily make the gathering better. Think about the location and how it is set up. How can you make a contained space for your gathering? Even a picnic blanket sets a boundary. Net, she talks through being a host and how to have gentle control over the group. You aren’t bossing them around, but you are setting ground rules to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable time. Parker includes much more on creating a good gathering from the opening to the closing.

I’ve certainly been to my share of gatherings where there was no official start or end, and you were left wondering what you should do. At one event I was at recently, the organizers got on the microphone to yell at guests who went back for seconds and tell them they couldn’t do that. It isn’t an event I would return to! On the other hand, at a wedding I attended, the family got most of the guests involved in a fun and easy group dance that connected the broad group of friends and relatives with each other and got everyone up and moving.

I’ll be using techniques from the book to create better gatherings in the future. I highly encourage you to read it yourself. It’s available at Lincoln City Libraries and many other locations.

Thanking a Retiring Executive Director

There are a million posts out there on how to thank someone who is retiring by buying them a gift. But how meaningful is a plaque or clock after someone has spent decades serving their community as a nonprofit leader? How can you thank someone in a way that really connects to their work and reminds them that they are valued?

Read moreThanking a Retiring Executive Director

Creating a Great Board Manual

Here’s a selection of items to include in your board manual. Many of these documents you already have. If you find you need to create documents, your current board members will appreciate having them as well, so be sure to share them with everyone. Keep everything brief, but informative.

Consider whether it makes more sense to have these as printed documents, or if you would rather create a shared online area to store them. Every board and board member is different in how they prefer to receive information. Google Drive is a low cost solution that nonprofits often use for sharing documents.

Read moreCreating a Great Board Manual

How to be the Volunteer Organizations Need

After decades of being a volunteer, and supervising volunteers, I have seen a lot of fantastic volunteers, and a few that just left me baffled. The ones that show up every week consistently and help with whatever needs to be done were awesome. The board members who jumped in and helped at events in so many ways. I’m currently volunteering on a political campaign and the staff are excited to see me every time I come in, and they always check in to find out when I’m coming back. That motivates me to keep helping.

Read moreHow to be the Volunteer Organizations Need

Learning to Be an Interim Executive

Being an interim executive director is a challenging role, and one that not many people have the training and experience to complete successfully. I have had two interim director roles, but I knew I had much more to learn. In late January, 2019, I attended the Interim Executives Academy developed by the Third Sector Company.

The training gave me a solid foundation to use to grow my skills as an interim. It was also helpful to meet other interim directors and talk about our challenges and our successes.

There were three fundamental aspects that I learned during the training:

Read moreLearning to Be an Interim Executive