- Michael Guillot
Success Planning - Don't Wait Till Disaster Strikes
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
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
Lesson Two: When your radar says itís going to be bad - get
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
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,
this article originally appeared in Nonprofit Boards and