Some nonprofit boards recruit a professional interim executive director to lead an organization during an executive transition. But far too often a board rushes to hire a permanent chief executive who only becomes an “unintentional interim”.
An unintentional interim usually enjoys a brief honeymoon period with the board, staff and community, followed by several turbulent months and an abrupt resignation or termination. My friend Sheila, a seasoned nonprofit executive, refers to executive directors who leave in less than 18-months as the “sacrificial goat” because the timing of their recruitment results in painful and short tenure.
In my consulting work with nonprofits, I often speak with boards that recruited a competent, accomplished and qualified new chief executive. When the permanent executive director leaves in the first 18 months, board members exclaim, “We just don’t know why our chief executive didn’t work out. They successfully ran another organization for 7 years, and we thought they would be just as successful here.”
The dangers of an unintentional interim executive director
Whether they resign or are forced out, unintentional interim executive directors often experience an abrupt departure. As a result, the nonprofit does not have a smooth executive transition and the organization suffers from
- Significant turmoil among staff
- The board refocusing its attention on operations and
- Diminished trust among funders and major donors
- Damaged reputation within the community.
I have even witnessed some organizations enter an “unintentional interim spiral” – which is when an organization has multiple successive short-tenured executive directors. When this occurs, the nonprofit will usually experience significantly higher attrition throughout the organization, as people leave seeking workplace stability somewhere else. Additionally, relationships with major donors and funders often fall through the cracks, resulting in less unrestricted funds necessary to cover infrastructure, operations and the recruitment of a new chief executive. If the nonprofit can’t reverse this spiral, its only hope of survival is through a merge with a stable, well-run organization.
Warning signs that you aren’t ready to hire the next permanent executive director
Since we know the types of transitions that most often lead to an unintentional interim, you can determine an organization’s readiness for a permanent executive director. Whether you are on the board responsible for hiring the chief executive or you are a candidate for an executive director position, I would advise extreme caution in any of the following situations:
1. The outgoing chief executive has enjoyed a long, successful tenure.
If the departing chief executive has been in the position 10, 20 or even 30 years, the organization will experience significant transition and turmoil for 12 to 18 months after the executive director’s last day. The organization has morphed around the last executive director’s strengths and weaknesses, and the necessary restructuring and organizational change is too often deadly for a new executive director walking into the organization without social capital.
2. The departing CEO is either charismatic or is the organization’s founder.
Charismatic leaders often develop a cult of personality, and the next leader can never compare to the last one. The organization should anticipate significant staff and donor attrition in the months following a charismatic CEO’s departure, and those who remain will likely have much lower levels of satisfaction throughout the next CEO’s tenure.
3. The board is not ready to let go of the outgoing executive director.
Boards who feel the last chief executive should return as a contractor, staff member, or board member are never ready to recruit a permanent executive director. Regardless of the role given to former chief executive director fills, they will have significantly more social capital and trust among board, staff and funders. Consequently, board members, staff, funders and even community members will look to the last executive director for leadership and guidance. Not fully letting go of the former executive director is the best way to sabotage your new chief executive.
4. The organization is in crisis.
When a chief executive transition happens during an organizational crisis, the board invariably recruits a leader best suited for managing the crisis. But this person is rarely the leader best suited for long term management and growth. Consequently, when the crisis subsides, it becomes painfully apparent that the new leader isn’t the right person for the position.
How to avoid unintentional interim executives
Avoiding an unintentional interim is actually simple: If your organization aligns with one of the four warning signs, you should engage a qualified, professional interim chief executive. This will be someone who does interim engagements for a living and isn’t a candidate for the permanent position. Your interim will have the ability to make tough decisions necessary for long term sustainability and growth. And this person will also provide orientation and support for the new chief executive at the end of the engagement.
Additionally, be certain to partner with your new CEO to create an onboarding plan that launches their success.
Have questions? Reach out to me.
In my consulting practice, I provide support to boards around executive transitions. This includes creating succession plans, designing custom onboarding experiences, coaching for new executive directors, and interim executive director services. Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss an executive transition at your nonprofit.
While I am based in Atlanta, some of my prior interim executive engagements have been with the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City, and the Southwest Center in Phoenix.
If this post was helpful, be sure to check out the Executive Transition Planning Series:
Executive Transition Planning Series:
Part 1: Why you need an executive transition plan
Part 2: Four types of transitions
Part 3: Pros and cons of Executive Director contracts