Check Your Ego and Prioritize the Organization

I love to share good stories. After my last post (about a founding ED who would not let go), a reader reached out to me to share a very different story. In this post, the founding CEO, the board chair, and the new CEO worked together to make a smooth and successful transition.

What worked? Everyone emphasized their commitment to the organization, putting mission before ego. The founder pledged to support the new CEO. The board created a thoughtful, strategic process that prepared them and staff for the transition for the future. The new CEO and the founder developed a good working relationship built on strong communication.

I share the perspective of all of them – founder, board chair, new CEO.

These stories also reveal some of the same lessons about selecting a new CEO that I share in previous posts: Hiring a new CEO, Role of Outgoing CEO in Hiring, Need for Diversity, A Search that Went Wrong, and Expert Advice.

A Founder Transition that Worked

From a founder, board chair, and new CEO somewhere in the US

Founding CEO: I Am Here to Serve the New CEO

Once I decided to leave, the board chair, some other board members, and I talked about the transition, about messaging, and the timing of the announcement. We were thinking of a six- to nine-month search. We wanted to give a good long time so staff, donors, and partners could get used to the idea but not too long. We were all heavily invested in doing it right the first time. We agreed that if we did not find the right fit, we would go for an interim instead of taking the wrong person.

We read about founders and transitions and the degree to which the founder should continue to be engaged. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be for the founder to cut the cord and get out. I was prepared to do this. But we also knew that this particular organization had unique circumstances. I am the founder, but I am also a public figure. Also, I was the largest donor and the largest fund raiser.

We created a day by day plan. We knew that once staff knew, word would get out and we had to move fast. We told the staff at a regular staff meeting. Then we had another group of people – donors, partners – who needed to know before a public announcement. The list was long. We made calls. We got some done through email. For me, the internal needs of the organization had to take priority.  There was a lot of anxiety on part of the staff which grew as time went by. The search took several more months than we anticipated so this was completely understandable.

The search committee had been formed. They asked three search organizations to submit proposals. I was asked to look at and comment on the proposals, but I was not involved with the selection of the search firm beyond that.

I was not involved in the search process more than any other stakeholder. I was interviewed when they were doing a job description. I had never had one because I was a founder. Even if had one, it would have been redone because a lot had changed over 11 years, especially in the last couple years which were a time of immense growth.

I wanted to be very clear to the people who were applying that a measure of my success as a founder was to make the transition succeed. The role I would play would be driven by the characteristics and the needs of the new person. My overall philosophy was “I am here to serve this new CEO and whatever they and the board felt was needed, I would do.” We had a list of things like making introductions to donors, partners, public officials. As it turned out, we were able to overlap for a month and then I was around as needed for another month.

For me, the lessons learned are that you need a well thought out process. You have to prioritize the needs of the new person, the staff, and the organization.

Board Chair: Think Hard About a CEO for the Future

The Founder told the board about six months before we announced publicly that she was retiring. Having this lead time meant that as a board we could start doing our work. We started getting materials about CEO successions in general and founder succession in particular. Since the founder and some staff attended board meetings, we started holding executive sessions on a regular basis. This gave the board the ability to speak without concern about the founder’s feelings. We agreed that we had to look for a CEO for the future. We needed to step back and ask where are we now and where do we want to go in the next ten years? The founder was perfect to get us to where we are now. What did we need in new leadership? As we had these discussions, we made sure that the founder had input into what the future might look like.  

We talked about the makeup of the Board Search and Transition Committee. We wanted this committee to reflect the diversity we strive for on the board. The committee was somewhat large – eight people – but committed and agile in getting things done.

We did not try to do this search by ourselves. We collected names of search consultants early so by the public announcement, we had a short list and were able to ask for proposals right away. The search consultants helped us make decisions – did we want an interim? What was our Plan B if we did not find the right person? Finding someone to follow the founder would be challenging.

I met regularly with the founder, keeping her apprised of board decisions. We knew it was the board’s decision. But we wanted the founder’s input along the way. I also provided reports to staff at monthly meetings. Many of the staff were uncomfortable with the uncertainty.

One factor that I think contributed to our success was the process we used to develop the job description, the announcement, and the questions that were posed to each candidate. We thought long and hard about the attributes we were looking for and about the big picture issues that the organization needed to address. We got input from staff and the founder. When we prepared the questions for the interviews, we knew what we were looking for. We agreed that getting someone who did NOT have those attributes would not be good for the organization. We were incredibly lucky that we found the right person.

I was pleased with the breadth and depth of the candidates. As we narrowed our choices, we felt it was important for the founder to meet and interview our top candidates because the transition would be critical, and the dynamic was important. We wanted to know her views. She interviewed the top two candidates and gave us feedback. There was consensus with the search committee, the founder, and the board about the strongest candidate which is the one we made the offer to.

Staff were not happy to meet with only one person – we had told them they would be able to meet all the finalists. But the board felt it was not ethical to have someone meet the staff if we knew we were not going to select them.

The new CEO was impressive in her interview. She gave a presentation to us and that presentation covered every question that we had prepared to ask her. It says a lot about her and the care she took to prepare for the interview.

During the first quarter, the new CEO’s primary job was the transition between her and the founder. I told both that if things came up that they were uncomfortable talking about I would help out. But it was not necessary. They decided on a plan and it worked out.

What are my lessons learned? Get started right away and do your homework. There are critical decisions to be made and you have to think through the process. We had a strategy for everything – for the staff, for the founder, for the search consultant, for donors and partners. It was important to have a Plan B, which we did. Keeping the staff front and center is essential because they are the people who make it happen. We worked very hard to be as transparent as possible.

New CEO: It’s Not About Power but a Shared Commitment to the Organization

I succeeded a founder before. A decade before, I became ED of a small nonprofit in another city. The founder was not only the founding ED but was also the creator of a unique programmatic model that the organization was built on. The founder stayed on staff in a unique role. Two ingredients were important to my success in that situation. First, we both believed that my successful leadership was essential to the organization’s future. Second, we had an unwavering commitment to communication.

When I interviewed for this position, one step was to meet with the founder. Our conversation was exactly on this topic. We talked about ensuring that we had a shared commitment to the organization and that its success meant empowering me in my role. And we knew we had to. She declared that she was going to be a resource and did not want to be that founding CEO who keeps coming in, so you have to change the locks.

The founder and I had a month of overlap. I sat in an office adjacent to her. I was copied on all communication. And we would have a huddle to talk through things. Not all founding CEOs would do it that way. Not all new CEOs would do it that way. It worked because she and I were able to ebb and flow. Neither one of us cared about power or position. What we cared about was the transition and the future of the organization. And the founder offered to pack up her office. The transition was over a holiday. She packed up and I moved in so when staff came back, they saw me in the office. I was impressed that she offered. I did not have to ask. 

The biggest challenge was earning the staff’s respect and trust given the months of uncertainty. The overlap helped the staff acclimate to me. This is an example of where both the board and the founder were phenomenal, allowing me to develop my own relationships with the staff.

I also noticed a complete readiness on behalf of the board of directors. They had done the preparation to allow for a new CEO to step in. Not all boards are ready. At the time, there were five founding board members still on the board. But they were ready.

As I interviewed, I knew that willingness to support a new CEO and communication were going to be critical, so I asked about them. The board humbly said that there are things they did not know because they had never hired a CEO before. And they said we will learn together.

Here is an example: During the year before I came, many staff left. A big transition such as a founder leaving causes uncertainty, decisions are put on hold. And that’s hard on staff. The board was concerned about the staff turnover and several board members wanted to create a subcommittee to monitor staff turnover. I understood their concern. The board chair and I discussed the roles of the board and the CEO around staff issues. What I did was create a dashboard that listed all the positions that were open, the language I used to write the job descriptions to attract different types of candidates, and how I was recruiting.  I talked about my approaches and provided regular updates which gave them assurance that I was addressing this area. We were able to avoid crossing the fine line where a board starts to engage at the staff level.

I do have some advice for a new CEO who is following a founder:

You should know if and how you will utilize the founder. There are some people who may be threatened or may just want to move on. In this case, I knew that the founder had offered to be a resource and did not want to be a barrier. Both of those things were important to me. I wanted to be able to use the founder to guide me, to run ideas past, and to understand inner workings of relationships – the behind the scenes things. I wanted to be able to have private conversations with her but also know that she would back me up publicly.

Being an acute listener is an essential skill for any new CEO but particularly one who is succeeding a founder. Concerns emerge with a major transition – from both the staff and the board. You have to hear those concerns and be transparent about what you are willing to do and why. I quickly made a few changes that addressed some internal staff concerns.  This showed that I was listening and would act. I did not make every change everyone wanted. But I was transparent. You have to do this before you can focus on your own new, innovative, and exciting ideas. 

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