Leadership & Transitions

Leaders often pay insufficient attention to the power of well-executed leader transitions. Done well, thoughtful transitions result in aligned and engaged leaders, better-served communities, and a fairer and more caring world. Listed below are the resources I have found most helpful in this work.

Click the title of each organization or article to explore further.

Page Navigation

Go-To Websites

Executive Transition, and Leader Continuity Affinity Group with The Alliance for Nonprofit Management – The national professional association for those involved as consultants, researchers, funders, and leaders in the fields of executive transition and leader continuity. Includes up-to-date information on practices and access to helpful resources and consultants.

The National Council of NonprofitsThe council of all the state nonprofit associations has done a great job of capturing many helpful tools and articles on executive transition, succession planning, and many other related topics.

Don Tebbe.com – Don is a friend of mine and was my business partner at TransitionGuides, a national consulting organization dedicated to well-executed transitions, well-led organizations, and a fairer world. Don has continued to write and deepen the understanding of the power of leaders and transition.

Most Helpful Short Reads

Here is the best of many articles and blog posts which provide a map on: 1) how to plan and complete a successful executive search and transition, 2) the process of grooming and planning for future leader succession, and 3) guidance on key issues that are frequently encountered in these two processes. 

(Terminology clarification – “Transition” refers to when the executive actually leaves, and a new person is hired. “Succession” or” leader continuity” is the ongoing work of ensuring there are backups for key positions and a culture that encourages leader development.)

For Leading an Organization through Executive Transition & Search

These articles describe the three-phase approach – Prepare, Search, Onboard or Prepare, Pivot and Thrive – to effectively managing a leader transition developed through an Annie E. Casey project.

Capturing the Power of Leadership Change
Annie E. Casey Foundation, Executive Transition Monograph series
Presents a properly managed and supported transition as a “pivotal moment,” enabling organizations to change direction, maintain momentum, build, or rebuild its infrastructure, and clarify its mission.

Prepare your Organization for a CEO Transition
Rachael Gibson, Marcum, October 17, 2018
A big picture summary and road map for boards and executives of the path from succession planning to a new executive.

What to Do When Your Executive Director Leaves: The Board’s 6 Tasks
Don Tebbe, February 4, 2020
This article takes a fresh look at executive transition and provides boards six essential tasks and a list of key questions to address for a successful executive transition. More details in Don’s book Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO.

The Changing Faces Of Interim Executive Management: Strategic Capacity-Building for the Nonprofit Sector through Expert On-Demand Leadership
Jeffrey R. Wilcox
This article broadens our understanding of the many roles interim leadership can provide to stabilize and/or strengthen nonprofit organizations.

Nonprofit Leadership at a Crossroads
Mistinguette Smith, Nonprofit Quarterly, Sept. 17, 2019
Powerful description of the challenge of achieving racial equity in nonprofit executive positions.

Seven Essentials for a Successful Executive Transition
Tim Wolfred, 2009
Tim Wolfred explains in a few words what any board leader or executive would want to know about executive transition.

Departing? Arriving? Surviving and Thriving: Lessons for Seasoned and New Executives
Tom Adams, December 2002 
Classic Nonprofit Quarterly article written specifically for the departing and arriving executive.

Do We Need an Executive Search?
Tom Adams and Karen Schuler

Developing Human Capital: Moving from Extraction to Reciprocity in Our Organizational Relationships
Jeanne Bell, February 13, 2020

No room for failure: Investigating board leadership in nonprofit executive transitions
Amanda J. Stewart, Thomas H. Adams, Dennis McMillian, Julia Burns
 This descriptive, exploratory study offers insights about how boards face the daunting task of a leadership transition, including what boards prioritize for a transition’s outcome and executive recruits, the reasons for the approach they take in fulfilling this governance responsibility, and the outcomes derived from the transition.

For Planning for Long-term Leader and Organizational Success

These articles transform a change in leader from an episodic organizational distraction to a process of reimagining long-term mission success through ongoing attention to nurturing and supporting leaders and attending to organizational health and sustainability. This approach provides a powerful opportunity to move beyond the hero leader executive model of leadership toward an empowering commitment to more inclusive and diverse leaders throughout the organization – leaders connected to clarity of purpose and committed to long-term results.

Blending Nonprofit Succession Planning and Executive Transition
Tom Adams, March 23, 2017
Executive transition is best approached in the broader context of ongoing organizational sustainability and succession planning. This case study shows how that works step by step and points out how it is different and more likely to support mission success than other approaches.

Preparing for the Inevitable: A Succession Readiness Checklist
Tim Wolfred, 2004

Leading for Mission Results: Connecting Leadership Beliefs and Predictable Changes
Tom Adams and Jeanne Bell, March 1, 2019

Nonprofit Leadership Transitions and Organizational Sustainability: An Updated Approach that Changes the Landscape
Jeanne Bell and Tom Adams, March 22, 2017

For Understanding and Managing Key Issues

Transition road bumps often come from the details. While there are patterns to executive transition and leader development, each organization and leader is unique. Attention to one or more of the following issues may be critical to your leader transition and ongoing building of a leader development culture.

Annie E. Casey Foundation Executive Transition Monograph series
Several of these monographs are cited below. This series provides helpful short reads on all the topics key to leader transition and succession. To find the entire series, visit https://www.aecf.org/resources.

Founder Transitions

Following the Leader: A Guide for Planning Founding Director Transition
Redington, E. and Vickers, D. 2001
The Academy for Leadership and Governance, Columbus, Ohio. This is a short, powerful explanation of the often-misunderstood role of founders of organizations and how they transition.

Founder Transitions: Creating Good Endings and New Beginnings, A Guide for Boards and Executive Directors
Tom Adams, Annie E. Casey Monograph Series

Making Founder Successions Work
Jari Tuomala, Donald Yeh, and Katie Smith Milway, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2018 
A read-carefully guide to what makes it possible for a founder, in some situations, to stay and work with, or for, their successor. Not easy to do well in my experience!

Interim Executives

The Changing Faces Of Interim Executive Management: Strategic Capacity-Building for the Nonprofit Sector through Expert On-Demand Leadership
Jeffrey R. Wilcox
This article broadens our understanding of the many roles interim leadership can provide to stabilize and/or strengthen nonprofit organizations.

Interim Executives: Providing Stability in Times of Uncertainty   Brian Krehbiel, April 14, 2020

Client Research Executive Summary: Interim Executive Management Services
The Third Sector Company, Inc., June 6, 2018


Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building & Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector
Deborah Linnell & Tim Wolfred, The Durfee Foundation, Santa Monica, California, 2010 

Retirement Preparation and Executive Exit Agreements

Finding Fulfillment after Nonprofit Retirement
Tom Adams, Judy Alnes, Robert Francis, Dennis McMillian, Kay Sohl, Tim Wolfred, The Nonprofit World, 2020

Exit Agreements for Nonprofit CEOs: A Guide for Boards and Executives
Tom Adams, Melanie Herman and Tim Wolfred, Jan. 13, 2020

Where to Find Help

Relevant Research – Amanda Stewart at North Carolina State University is the national leader in executive transition research. Some of her work is summarized on the Alliance website. For more information about Amanda, please visit her university faculty staff page here.

On board governance, Board Source and David Renz from the University of Missouri-Kansas City are great resources.  Topical research on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sector can be found through ARNOVA and some universities. Board Source also provides useful links on DEI that can be found here.

Finding Consultants It is important to find consultants who understand transition, search, and leader development. If you have a specific need, make sure you are hiring someone with that competency. Leader transition and succession planning offer unique opportunities to deepen understanding of racial diversity and inclusiveness.

State and regional nonprofit organizations are great resources in finding local consultants, including those who specialize in transition, succession, diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting. Here is a link to the national association, which will have info on nonprofit support organizations in your state: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org

Important Books and Longer Reads  

Understanding Executive Transitions and their Context

Successful executive transitions attend to both the transition and its context. Here are the most helpful books I know on this topic:

Chief Executive Transitions: How to Hire and Support a Nonprofit CEO
Don Tebbe, Revised 2019
Don’s book is the first choice for nonprofit boards and leaders who want an excellent, clear, easy to follow guide to the process of preparing to hire, hiring, and supporting a new executive.

Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits
Tim Wolfred
Tim’s extensive experience as an executive, interim executive, and manager of consulting services at CompassPoint inform and inspire his book a clear and thorough explanation of the three-phase approach to executive transition now used around the country.

The Nonprofit Guide to Leader Transitions and Development
Tom Adams
My book complements Don’s and Tim’s by offering a broader look at how executive transition connects with succession and sustainability planning, the unique challenges of founder transitions, and how succession and leader transition are opportunities to advance attention to racial diversity and equity and a culture of leader development. It is available from Amazon.

Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap
Frances Kunreuther & Sean Thomas-Breifield, co-directors for The Building Movement Project
Frances and Sean are leaders and advocates for data-driven straight talk about race, diversity and nonprofit leadership. This report and their website are a rich resource for anyone committed to a world that is committed to racial equity in leadership.

Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey
Dennis McMillian
This book is based on many years of experience working with nonprofits through change. Dennis McMillian, Laurie Wolfe, and the Foraker team have clarified and simplified the four basic ideas that determine the likelihood of long-term organizational and financial success. This book is a great guide to any leader or consultant working with boards on transition or change of any kind.

The Sustainability Mindset
Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman
When organizational sustainability was a mystery to most, this ground-breaking book out of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services led the way in connecting mission success with financial strength.

The Nonprofit CEO Succession Roadmap: Your Guide for the Journey to Life’s Chapter
Don Tebbe
Don’s newest book looks at succession planning from the executive’s perspective. If you are a nonprofit executive in the second half of life, this book is not to be missed. Don deals comprehensively with the emotional, practical, and leadership challenges for preparing to exit and doing it successfully. It is available from Amazon.

The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices
Tom Adams, Director at Raffa, P.C.
This paper explains the practice of executive transition as it has evolved from the simplicity of executive search to a collection of allied disciplines aimed at positioning organizations for leadership succession and long-term mission impact.

Other Useful Websites

Annie E. Casey Foundation
Bridgespan – Search for Nonprofit Leadership Development Toolkit 
Building Movement Project
Center for Creative Leadership
Harvard Business Review
Leadership Learning Community
Nonprofit Quarterly
Roadmap Consulting – A network of 90 capacity builders committed to social justice and movement building
National Council of Nonprofits Search nonprofit association or support center in your state/region (CompassPoint, Support Center, Third Sector New England, and others)
W.K. Kellogg Foundation – Search for leadership and racial equity and racial healing

About Tom Adams

Tom AdamsTom 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.