Getting Ready for Executive Transitions: Key Actions for Boards


Facing an executive transition is sobering and daunting for most board leaders, executives, and staffs. There are too many moving parts in a complex organization for the transition of the top leader to be simple. Boards that have not experienced the responsibility of managing an executive transition often underestimate what is involved.

Every transition is different. There are patterns that are helpful to understand. It is the culture and the context – what is going on in the organization and how healthy the organization is – that will determine what is needed for the specific transition.

My friend and colleague at Raffa (now Marcum), Rachael Gibson, offers all leaders of nonprofits, and particularly the board leaders, a clear and concrete set of steps to take when facing CEO transition.


“Prepare your Organization for a CEO Transition”

A change in CEO leadership is inevitable for all organizations. It is a time of risk, opportunity and certainly indicates a period when the Board must increase their level of engagement. Successful leadership transitions occur when organizations are thoughtful about how they prepare for the change.

Below are seven steps to take prior to launching the successful search and leadership transition for your new CEO:

  1. Assess the organization’s ability to advance its mission– Review the four core areas that support the organization’s sustainability and effectiveness in advancing its mission. This includes Strategy/ Business Model, Resources (financial and in-kind), Leadership, and Culture. Based on this assessment, intentionally identify how to position the organization for the future to ensure that it continues to be an asset to the communities being served.
  2. Review your organization’s succession policy –A CEO position succession policy is a routine risk management tool that addresses proper steps to ensure leadership continuity in the event of a planned or unplanned CEO absence.
  3. Agree on the CEO’s departure timeline –Whether or not a CEO is departing of his/her accord, a planned and agreed upon end date is necessary. A set timeline also allows the Board and staff to plan the timing of transition activities.
  4. Develop a transition timeline –Agree on the timing/dates for each aspect of the transition, including but not limited to: implementation for any organizational development/sustainability activities deemed necessary prior to the hiring of the new CEO, communicating the transition to internal and external stakeholders, launching a search for a new CEO, and onboarding a new CEO.
  5. Appoint a transition and search committee– Typically the Transition and Search Committee is comprised of board members who are responsible for the organization’s implementation of appropriate transition activities. The committee also manages and executes the search process as well as makes sure that the new CEO is onboarded in a thoughtful manner. Typically, the duration of the committee’s appointment is from the beginning of the transition process through the hired executive’s six-month performance review.
  6. Develop a communications plan –A proactive and coordinated communications plan seeks to inform and assure key stakeholders that the CEO transition is a planned, win-win scenario for the executive and the organization. It also indicates that the organization will thrive under new leadership. It is important to note that absence of information often is filled with inaccurate or negative assumptions. Therefore, it is important to regularly update these key stakeholders, and particularly internal stakeholders, of important transition-related activities.
  7. Actively and thoughtfully engage the board and staff –Solicit opinions and ideas from the staff and board to understand the organizational values and aspects of the culture that should be preserved or elevated. Similarly, acknowledge the key skill sets and leadership attributes needed in the future CEO.

The Search, Transition and Planning practice of Raffa (Marcum’s Nonprofit & Social Sector Group) combines new tools, cutting edge thinking, and proven practices to build capacity and strengthen mission-driven organizations. Raffa-Marcum is the partner nonprofits count on to deliver strategies and resources to prepare for the future. Our consultants – many of whom are former nonprofit leaders themselves – specialize in working with board and senior-level executives. (


  • Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.