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Avoiding Leadership Transition Disasters at National Nonprofit Organizations

 

The most recent leadership transition at Planned Parenthood is troubling.  In fact, unplanned leadership transitions at national nonprofit organizations, particularly chapter oriented organizations with strong-willed, quasi independent local/regional groups, are often rife with challenges – and unfortunately, not uncommon. The Red Cross suffered over a decade of rancorous leadership changes, some played out in public. The NAACP fired their CEO after less than two years, announcing it in the New York Times. JDRF went through a number of CEO changes before its last CEO, recruited from the board, brought stability and a smooth succession plan. And there are many other, less visibile but no less damaging changes. The abrupt firing at Planned Parenthood is just the latest sad case.

The circumstances surrounding these and other disastrous transitions are varied, but the solution to avoiding such expensive, disruptive and debilitating ruptures are clear:

  • the board must hire someone based on their experience and behavioral strengths – a physician, agency official who makes a successful TED talk may have a great back story but not the political acuity to lead a complex, consensus driven and emotional organization;
  • the boards must confirm, and make clear to all candidates, the mission and culture of the organization and put in place measures to ensure that the new President is both aware and evaluated on mission and culture;
  • as a safety net, the board should identify the three or four senior leaders essential to the organization (as the former president departs) and incentivize them to remain on board at least for a year following the transition;
  • and most importantly, a structured on-boarding plan must be in place and followed – for national organizations, where board members are located throughout the country, this is often complicated but, particularly for national boards, it is required.

There is nothing more disruptive to an organization, and costly, than this kind of ‘mistake.’ Boards must take the full measure of the responsibility for avoiding the potential for disaster and put these measures in place.

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