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Introduction to Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence

In this introduction to their book, the authors present an analysis of the problems that lead to frequent leadership turnover and the mismanagement of transitions. Learn how to construct organizations to achieve their objectives and how to transition management in a way that forms a sturdy bridge between the departure of the old leadership and the introduction of new.
This chapter is from the book

There is a crisis of leadership in our country. We idealize and revile leaders with equal passion. We welcome them as saviors and boot them out as scoundrels. The crisis, however, may reside as much in our confusing expectations as in the leaders' ineffectuality. There may be better ways to identify, introduce, support, and monitor our leaders that will enhance rather than undermine their performance.

That is the subject of this book: how to manage the change from one leader to the next in a way that gives leaders and the organizations they serve the best possible chance to succeed.

Leadership transitions are among the most important activities in the lives of organizations. Some people believe, for instance, that George Washington's stepping down after two terms in office set the stage for American democracy. Through his action, he rejected monarchy, even his own, and announced the imperative of orderly succession. So it is with organizations: Orderly succession announces the preeminence of an ongoing collective, not personal, agenda.

This is not always easy. Succession often follows conflict and confusion or, as in Washington's case, the departure of a beloved and trusted steward. How, we wonder, will we trust anyone else? But, of course, we must. And the way we guide that transition—the manner of our management itself—is the key to assuring our stakeholders that the continuity of purpose and activity will be preserved.

Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence presents an analysis of the problems that lead to frequent leadership turnover and the mismanagement of transitions. Ours is an aspirational portrait of how to construct organizations to achieve their objectives and how to transition management in a way that forms a sturdy bridge between the departure of the old leadership and the introduction of new.

The Crisis of Transition

For many people, the question of leadership turnover and transition is relatively minor and obscure—nothing to particularly concern themselves about. The scale of the problem along with the importance and complexity of the cure fly well below the radar. Some think a few professional consultants should pay attention, but not themselves even if they work or volunteer or serve on the boards of nonprofits. But for all of us who care about nonprofits, the conduct of leadership transitions is a big problem with a big upside if we learn to do it right. Transitions are deserving of a great deal of our attention.

What initially drew our attention to transitions were reports of the frequent, repetitive, and destructive turnover of leadership in the nonprofit world. Our work in executive education, executive search, and organization development consulting put us inescapably in the path of the storm. More formal research filled out our understanding.

Here's what we learned.

At any given time, there be as many as 20 to 25 percent of executive directors (called CEOs throughout this manuscript) in or near transition. According to various sources, as many as 34 percent of organizations have already had two or more executives in the past five years, and within five years more than 70 percent of CEOs expect to leave their current positions. Nearly 75 percent of all nonprofit executives will reach retirement age over the next two decades (Annie Casey Foundation).1 According to Bridgespan, by 2016, the nonprofit sector will need to add an average of 80,000 senior managers every year. These are astounding numbers!

Depending on who is measuring, the average tenure of nonprofit leaders is between three and five years. This leaves hardly enough time to build programs, put together effective teams, and achieve financial viability and credibility. Whatever progress leaders make in their adopted organizations is often undermined by rapid turnover, which inevitably proves costly and destabilizing to the organizations and to their own confidence. With the diminishment of credibility and resources, each new start becomes more difficult than the one before. It becomes harder and harder to convince funders, staff, and community leaders that this time will be different.

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