Long ago the Nonprofiteer had a client hire her to manage the transition from the founding Executive Director to—well, to whatever future awaited the agency in his absence. It was impressive, actually, that the founder himself was the one who realized first (and persuaded the Board) that transition planning was necessary.
But it turns out that recognizing the need for transition planning is quite a long way from being prepared for actual transition. While the founder was theoretically in favor of Life After Him, in practice he was working to set in stone the practices, policies, goals and programs of Life During Him. Though he would have denied this, his purpose was to prevent transition. The person at the helm would change but first the founder was going to assure that the new pilot’s heading would not deviate a single degree from his predecessor’s course.
The only surprise here is the Nonprofiteer’s failure to expect this absolutely predictable occurrence. (Well, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, either.) But even the smartest consultant isn’t a mind-reader, and so we mostly undertake to do what the client articulates as the job. Of course there will be undercurrents and cross-currents and breakers and riptides, but at least we’re all sailing in the same direction.
Except in this case we weren’t. When the Nonprofiteer met with the Board and challenged its members to move beyond the founder and take true ownership of the agency as essential preparation for hiring a successor, she found them chomping at the bit to do so. They had little experience with governance because they’d let the founder run things pretty much as he pleased; but that didn’t mean they had little interest in the subject. In fact, once they began to talk about things that could be done more or less or differently or better, they were neither to hold nor to bind. And, having gotten precisely what he’d said he wanted, the founder was furious—at, of course, the Nonprofiteer.
So here’s a warning to all you consultants out there: when you’re doing transition planning, assume that any founder who purports to be okay with leaving is lying like a rug. And to all you Baby Boomer founders out there, approaching retirement faster than we ever thought possible: if you’re serious about transition, find a consultant and go for it, but don’t expect the process to be smooth. Having a baby taken from your arms is a difficult experience, so don’t go through it til you’re confident that the nanny—your Board of Directors—can be trusted not to drop it.
What if you’re ready to retire and don’t trust the Board? (You shouldn’t have a Board you can’t trust, but that’s water under the bridge at this point.) Then shut the agency down. If the only way it can operate is your way, and you’re about to leave, end of story.
But if you want your creation to outlast your own tenure, brace yourself: with transition, you’re in for the ride of your life.