If you read the Leadership New England Report by TSNE MissionWorks, you may be wondering, “Where do I go from here? How do I plan for the day my executive director does finally retire?” Don’t wait until retirement is imminent. Get ahead of it and plan well in advance how you’ll make the transition smooth for your organization.

Are there leaders currently in your organization that could step up to an executive position, either now or with some training? Prioritize mentoring one or more leaders in some of the work your executive director does and start to delegate some of those tasks to the mentee. The leader will know what to expect in the role, and be prepared to take over when the time comes.

Ideally, the new leader will have an opportunity to work with the individual he or she will be replacing. If it’s an internal hire, try to transition responsibilities gradually and give hands-on training. For an outside hire, plan the hiring process a few months before the existing leader leaves so the new person can be hired early enough to overlap with the exiting executive.

What if an executive director, or other senior staff, leaves unexpectedly, whether by death or injury, or just an unexpected retirement or new job? Prepare for this kind of emergency by having the current leader keep a list of his or her duties and instructions to perform them. It will still be a stressful transition, but you’ll have a better understanding of what needs to be taken care of and reduce the potential chaos. You may also consider having “key person insurance” on your executive director and/or other senior staff in case of sudden death or incapacitation that would hinder your work.

Since the board of directors supervises the executive director, works with him or her closely, and would make the hiring decision for a replacement, they should take the lead in establishing a succession plan. They should review what the organization will need in a future leader, who in the organization could be groomed for a future succession, and if the organization needs to take any steps to prepare for a transition of leadership.

A few factors to consider for a change in leadership are:

  1. How long does your current leader plan to be in his or her role? This will give you a time frame to get ready for the transition.
  2. Do you need a leader with similar strengths and abilities to the current one, or is your organization or industry shifting such that a different type of leader is needed?
  3. If you pursue an internal hire/promotion, what coaching or mentoring does that person need in order to succeed in the new role? Can the current leader fill this mentoring role, or should you pursue outside professional development to supplement it?
  4. What external stakeholders should be considered? Does your current leader have relationships with significant donors, grantors, regulators, or other organizations that you work with? How can you maintain these relationships during the transition so you don’t lose momentum in your work, or risk losing funding?
  5. How will this impact your staff internally? Going through an executive transition is difficult for any organization. People are adjusting to the new leader. Some will miss the departed leader. Be careful about making significant changes during or after the transition that could hurt morale, lower productivity, alienate staff or make them consider leaving, and make sure you hire a new leader that will be a good cultural fit for your organization.

The executive director or board of directors may be nervous about developing a succession plan, fearing that the director is being pushed out. Unless the director is planning to leave, frame it not as an imminent change, but as long-range planning to keep your organization sustainable. When the time for a transition does come, you want it to go smoothly. In the interim, having a plan for leadership training and staff development can also make your organization healthier and more effective at accomplishing its mission.