When Leaders Leave

Priscilla Rosenwald & Lesley Mallow Wendell

92 pages, MarketShift, 2013

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Change is constant. And a change in leadership is inevitable. That’s true even when that leader is the founder who passionately embraced a societal need, brought together bright and promising people to think about solutions, and created the organization. At some time, at some point, that founder leader will move on.

When Leaders Leave, a recently published book by authors and leadership transition experts Lesley Mallow Wendell and Priscilla Rosenwald, is about that change in leadership, which often strikes fear at the very heart of an organization. It can throw the board, staff and leadership into turmoil. In fact, people go to great lengths to avoid disrupting the status quo. Sometimes, they even stay in bad relationships because it seems like a more palatable option. If we are overwhelmed by the fear of new leadership and we try to hold onto the status quo, we expend a lot of energy grasping at something that is unachievable. Successful organizations have both the stability and the resiliency to respond to changes in their internal and external environments.

Change in leadership is, indeed, a painful thought. But avoiding it or pretending that it won’t happen could put an organization in long-term jeopardy. What is most important is that the facts are faced and parameters put in place to ensure that the organization will continue to thrive and stand on its own without the current leadership. It is critical because this will ensure that the organization’s leadership can continue to address its mission in positive ways.

Planning ahead and thinking through that potential change in leadership for the chief executive and, sometimes, for the board chair, is actually a series of three processes that support the organization’s overall strength and development: leadership legacy planning, succession planning and transition planning.

These distinct processes are used to effectively address a change in leadership. Some of these occur concurrently, some are continual and some happen at a specific time during a leadership change event.

Leadership legacy planning. This is the biggest landscape in which to view the inevitability of leadership transition. It is an ongoing process that should occur even if the organization is not planning on a leadership change. It asks the leadership to align the legacy of the executive director and the organization and to take the steps to ensure a positive outcome.

Succession planning. This plan is a strategic overview of the steps necessary to ensure the organization’s preparedness to thrive when the leader leaves. The focus is on how the organization will develop resiliency and strengthen the leadership talent. The emergency succession plan will detail the actions to be taken under various scenarios, such as an unplanned emergency leave or a planned departure with long-term notice. Optimally, the succession plan would be reviewed yearly, in conjunction with the strategic plan.

Transition planning. This plan only occurs once the leader has identified that he or she is planning to move on- regardless of whether it will be an immediate exit or a longer process. It is an active plan that identifies the steps to assess the organization’s strengths, evaluate the opportunity, plan the search and hire, and determine the optimal way to support the current leader’s leaving, and the new leader’s on-boarding.

Leadership legacy planning assures the organization’s ability to survive and thrive. This focus is actually part of an important, ongoing process in which the organization periodically assesses its vision based on the reality of current needs and refines its optimal path for growth. This process also provides a roadmap to ensure that all levels of leadership are aligned with the same focus.

With advanced leadership legacy planning, the organization will survive a leadership transition and actually thrive because of the reflection inherent in the process and the diverse thinking and energy brought by a new CEO.

The opportunities abound. Every organization has the potential to go through a leadership change and emerge with strength. The transition provides a unique chance for the organization to manage change by establishing good leadership practices and creating an environment of resiliency.

When Leaders Leave is a how-to book with essential tools for the Board and the CEO to plan for that inevitable transition, avoid pitfalls, and smooth out the path. It can help board chairs who are thinking about leadership legacy planning and succession planning, foundations who are asking organizations to look at the longer horizon and CEOs who know that five years down the road there will be other challenges calling.

We are living in times of change. In the nonprofit sector, there is considerable leadership transition among boards and executive directors as the boomers move on and the next generation comes into the lead. Accepting leadership change as inevitable can be the engine that fuels the resiliency and agility an organization needs to thrive.

Because change is the only constant we can count on, we all need to embrace it and figure out how to use it in our favor so that we can help our organizations grow and evolve. Here’s what we know.

Leaders leave. Whether it’s a founder leader with beginning thoughts about retirement, a new generation leader just starting her planned five-year run or a transition in board leadership, organizations are always in flux somewhere on the continuum of leadership transition.

Leadership change is a challenge. Leadership change is not simple. It impacts every employee, board member and stakeholder in the organization. Anticipating that challenge in advance ultimately smooths out the process and prepares the organization for a successful transition and integration of new leadership.

Leadership change is opportunity. Knowing that change is inevitable opens the doorway to new thinking about how an organization and its leaders can positively impact the mission. When the environment supports a mantra of continual growth, new directions will evolve. With change in mind, management always has an eye toward long-term growth and development for the individual and for the organization.

The entire book can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or TransitionWorks’ website.