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  Success Planning - Don't Wait Till Disaster Strikes Potpourri

Canadian FundRaiserGOVERNANCE - Michael Guillot

Success Planning - Don't Wait Till Disaster Strikes

Itís the sudden call from your Executive Director: ďIím not sure how to tell you this, so Iím just going to come right out and say it. Iíve decided itís time to move on and Iíve accepted another position.Ē

Sudden executive changes can be the bane of board members. The work done to find and retain great leadership is often undermined by the rapid turnover many nonprofits experience. Unfortunately, talking about and working on succession issues donít often make it to the top of the agenda until it is time to act. The best time to start thinking about managing executive transitions is right now.

I recently went to class at the School of Hard Knocks and had the opportunity to learn some lessons about managing sudden change when my family and I were displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Losing both our home and our business was a tough way to ďgo to schoolĒ, but these three invaluable lessons I learned may prove beneficial to you in managing unexpected senior management transitions.

Lesson One: Keep an axe in the attic

In the final hours before we evacuated the city, our mayor warned us that if we chose to stay, make sure there was an axe in the attic. An axe in the attic is a way to prepare for the worst-case scenario, a way out of trouble when all appears lost. You saw the results on CNN. For many families, a helicopter ride off the roof was the only way to safety.

But you canít get to the helicopter unless you have a way to chop through the roof. You know that at some time in your governance tenure, you will be confronted with the ďdisasterĒ of suddenly losing a key executive. What preparations can you do now that will give you a way out of trouble?

First, start immediately to work with your current executive to create a succession plan. This is not an implied threat, but rather an appropriate leadership responsibility. Prudent and diligent management will provide a clear process in the event of a planned or an unexpected vacancy.

That plan, actually part of the wise management of your organization, should contain systems that capture and preserve the institutional memory of your organization. Too often, executives have treasures of knowledge that are never recorded, entered into the database, or placed in the donor files. When they go, they walk out of the door with those treasures. You canít let that happen.

Second, make contact with individuals or firms that provide interim executive leadership. This is a growing service being provided by a number of professionals that will allow your organization to have experienced leadership during the transition to your next placement. Having an interim executive managing the organization can free the directors to focus their energies on the search for a permanent leader. Many churches have been doing this for quite some time and the process is now available to you.

Finally, become knowledgeable about the talent pool in your community and have a list of potential all-stars youíd like to recruit. Pay attention to the success and failure of the other nonprofits in your area and your field. Learn who the players are and donít be hesitant to keep track of the up-and-comers. Look beyond just other executive directors. I would recommend that top fundraisers might be great sources of potential leaders.

Lesson Two: When your radar says itís going to be bad - get out

For many potential disasters, signs of trouble are visible before you feel the wind in your face. One of the intriguing notions about hurricanes is that you know days in advance that theyíre out there. In New Orleans we spent much of that time in various rituals of denial, wishful thinking, or blissful ignorance. Trouble often gives plenty of notice, and yet many of us let complacency seduce us into inaction.

Trust your early warning system. Most effective board leaders have good intuition that can provide time to head off disaster or to make appropriate preparations.

Are you providing consistent and meaningful feedback (as well as listening carefully) to your executive? What are the parking lot conversations (you know, the real meetings after the meetings) revealing? Are you meeting privately with your executive often enough to have a sense of his or her feelings about the work?

Many of the indications of an executive change are often present long before the unexpected occurs. Take full advantage of both formal and informal opportunities to make sure you have a clear sense of the situation.

If your indicators are blinking, then it might be time to make the first move and get out of trouble before it starts. Actually, many of your adjustments may prevent the change and enhance the work of the executive and the board. For example, a private conversation is often a welcome chance for an executive to express directly and frankly his or her own outlooks. When that happens, it usually means a better understanding emerges.

Lesson Three: No matter what anyone says Ė you are on your own

When the call came for us to leave the city, we all had to fend for ourselves. If you didnít have a car, well, too bad. Perhaps you could walk to the Superdome (and we all know how that turned out). No government or nonprofit agency offered you a ride out. There was no plan and no help. For many folks, all they could do was make sure they had an axe in the attic.

Frankly, waiting for the rescue team to get to you is not an option. Solving the problem of executive transition lies firmly (and appropriately) in your hands. Your donors, your volunteers, and your staff all have a right to expect that you will take care of business.

Thatís why using board retreat time, governance committee time, and especially executive committee time on succession matters is valuable and critical. Itís one of those non-urgent, important tasks we never seem to get to, but can make all the difference in the effective leadership for your organization.

Tackling this matter now, rather than in the throes of the disaster, can be a critical factor in recruiting your next leader. You are demonstrating the kind of board acumen that will attract strong executives. The well-documented shortage of qualified nonprofit executives will mean the competition for these top candidates will be intense. The way you manage this transition can speak volumes to prospects and will place your organization in the best possible light.

In New Orleans, we all knew it was only a matter of time before the man-made attempts at preventing disaster would be found insufficient. We also spent our time ignoring that reality as unpleasant and uncomfortable. Don't make that mistake.

Have a worst-case scenario plan, use and trust your intuition, and take the initiative in managing a potential transition. Face your reality and begin now planning for the unexpected. We all know it will come.

Michael Guillot is Director of Development, WakeMed Foundation, Raleigh NC, 919/350-2966, MGUILLOT@wakemed.org; this article originally appeared in Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review, www.charitychannel.com.

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