Each month the Partnership for America’s Children hosts “Partnership Peer Exchange” sessions, where seasoned leaders from our network get together with Partnership members from across the country. Members share wisdom and inspiration, and discuss pressing issues facing all our organizations.
In November’s Peer Exchange, Jake Endres, Director of Network Organizational Effectiveness at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, shared his top strategies for putting equity at the center of your organization’s executive leadership transition.
A change in leadership is full of possibility: It can be a time of renewal, growth, new energy, and an opportunity to deepen the organization’s commitment to equity in all its forms.
Jake Endres shared an excellent resource from CBPP, The Executive Leadership Transition Guide. The Guide was designed to lift up equity choice points and challenge assumptions about the executive search process, while providing Boards and outgoing Executive Directors with a comprehensive resource to support executive search and transition.
Setting the stage for equitable transition
A strong Board that has been working towards racial equity in the organization is well-positioned to develop and lead an equitable search and onboarding process. This means the Board members have built a shared understanding of the organization’s values and goals around promoting equity, both within the organization and in its external work. They also understand the organization’s role in the community, its theory of change, its brand, and its organizational culture, positioning themselves to select a new leader who shares those values and can lead the organization effectively.
The role of succession planning
Developing a Succession Plan may sound daunting, but Jake emphasized that it does not have to be a complex or time-consuming project. A good Succession Plan does two key things for your organization in the event of a transition:
- It puts the vital information on paper, all in one place, that a new leader (whether interim or “permanent”) will need;
- Second, the act of discussing and updating the Succession Plan on a regular basis ensures that the staff and Board know their roles, and have a sense of what to expect in a transition – whether that transition is planned or unplanned.
Yet only 29% of organizations say they have a succession plan in place, according to BoardSource’s 2021 “Leading With Intent” report. CBPP’s Guide makes it easy to get started: Appendix B provides an agenda for your organization’s annual succession planning conversation.
Jake also underscored how organizations can put the theory behind the Succession Plan into practice on a daily basis, by building a management team of trusted senior staff. One important goal of a good management team is that any member of that team could step into the Executive Director role if necessary – because they have all been coached for the role through regular conversations and practice.
Convene a Transition Committee to manage expectations and communications
Once it becomes imminent that an Executive Director is going to step down, there are two crucial things that the organization must do often and well, according to Jake: (1) manage expectations, and (2) communicate with stakeholders and staff.
Convening a Transition Committee names the specific people who will have responsibility for those two critical functions. The Board should make it very clear what authority the Transition Committee has, how long the committee will be in effect, and what their responsibilities are. The committee does not only need to be made up of Board members – it can include trusted staff, clients, or other close partners of the organization.
Early in the process, the Transition Committee should answer important questions like:
- How will the staff be involved in the search?
- What is the timeline for hiring and onboarding?
- Who is responsible for communicating regular updates to the staff and other stakeholders?
- How will the Board gather input from the outgoing ED and staff?
Jake emphasized that the Transition Committee should launch an ongoing effort to over-communicate throughout the process. There will naturally be a quiet phase during interviews to protect candidate confidentiality. However, the staff and other key stakeholders need to hear regularly where the Board is in the process and what the anticipated timeline is – especially because it’s bound to shift as the process evolves.
The end is a new beginning
Eventually the search will come to an end, with a great new leader identified for the organization. An equitable transition doesn’t end there, however. It is vital for the Board to warmly welcome the new Executive Director and ensure that their onboarding is thorough and supportive.
The Board should develop a six to twelve-month plan with the new Executive Director to clarify performance objectives, ensure needed supports, and provide regular encouragement and constructive feedback along the way. Whether the Board decides to use a search firm, or conducts the search themselves, it is crucial that the thoughtful transition doesn’t come to an end just because the search is over.
Many Boards are working hard to expand their networks and recruit new leaders of color, younger leaders, and leaders from other sectors. The search and placement is just the first half of a more equitable transition. The rest of the story is in how our Boards support and nurture new leaders, setting them up to thrive in their roles.
Many thanks to Jake Endres of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, as well as all the Partnership members who attended, for generously sharing their expertise and insights during the November Partnership Peer Exchange.