Leadership and Letting Go

Photo by Mapbox from Unsplash.com

Editor’s Note: Leadership transitions are challenging for every type of organization. Employees fear change; boards doing the hiring are often not prepared for the complex range of issues faced in the hiring. Guest editor Catherine Bradshaw, a consultant specializing in leadership transitions, addresses the particular challenges of leader transition in nonprofit organizations.

 The organizations we live and work in every day are highly complex and multi-dimensional with many moving parts and diverse personalities, perspectives, and interests.  They’re also interdependent with the volatile and complex world beyond their walls. As a consultant to nonprofit organizations, I’m hyper-aware of the forces that continually buffet them – vagaries in the political environment that impact their funding, social and economic forces that impact their clients, the many impacts of the pandemic, and the impact of generational differences in the workplace, to name just a few.

Another complex challenge for nonprofits is leadership transition. Nonprofit executives often struggle to let go of control when they’re heading toward departure, especially for those who have either founded the organization or are long-term “legacy” leaders. These leaders have poured their heart and soul, along with years of hard work, into building an organization that is impacting lives and bringing about systemic change. The organization can literally feel like their “baby”, an extension of themselves. They’re not just relinquishing responsibility of a key decision to others, they’re handing the whole package over to a new leader. I’ve worked with extremely mature, grounded, and wise executive directors who during their final months are hit by understandable but unexpected anxiety about handing the reins over to others; the impulse is sometimes to tighten their grip even more. Departing leaders can benefit from additional support such as coaching or peer support during this challenging time.

Leaders and boards can prepare for transition by encouraging the development of all staff as leaders in their positions. Boards can increase odds of a successful leadership turnover by ensuring there are policies and practices that encourage inclusion and diversity throughout the organization and by intentionally pausing and preparing themselves and the staff for moving through the challenging dynamics of a CEO transition before it happens. In this regard, the executive is well-served by seeking support to learn about this unique opportunity for organizational and personal development and to manage the mix of feelings and organizational behaviors that commonly occur with transition. (See note below for one opportunity)

In conclusion, the leader who loosens the reins, engages the knowledge and creativity of others and builds leadership throughout the organization ultimately strengthens its capacity to navigate a complex environment. The transition to new leadership, especially with the departure of a legacy or founding leader, is a time of turbulence and change, but the organization that has a culture of empowerment and distributed leadership is better equipped to move smoothly through the transition and land in a place of strength.

Editor’s Note: Nonprofit leaders who are contemplating retirement in the next 1-3 years might find support in the cohort program that Catherine and her Eos Transition Partners Colleague Nancy Jackson offer – Thresholds: Leaving Nonprofit Life with Courage and Grace. The next one begins on May 21st with four online sessions through June 18th.