Last month I shared a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when an organization compromises in their choice of a new executive director due to search fatigue or poor preparation.
This month, I present a tale about what can happen in an executive transition when there is lackof good will among the board of directors and a lapse in honoring one’s role as a trustee of an organization.
Often in the case with significant decisions, a board of directors will agree up front to emerge from its deliberations in unanimity. This desire to present a united face to staff and the public conveys a strong message and fosters further buy-in by other stakeholders. But what if someoneonly pays lip service to this and strays from the group? What if someone doesn’t put what is best for the organization first? In this scenario, an individual disrupts the organization by subverting the transition process.
After ten years of service a board of directors asked the executive director, who had been the first paid staff person in the organization, to submit her resignation rather than firing her. Board members had lost confidence in this leader after learning about certain actions she had taken with funders. It was a difficult decision because several board members, including the board chair, had worked closely with this leader for most of her tenure.
A staff person became the interim executive director. A search committee was formed. The board of directors felt that to do a thorough search for a new leader it would behoove them to dip into the reserve fund and hire an executive search firm. The search consultant conducted a needs assessment, engaged the board in important conversations about the organization’s future and the experience, skills, and personal qualities the next leader needed to be successful.
With their due diligence completed and the board’s support, the search firm went about sourcing and interviewing candidates. They presented the top three to the search committee for interviews and a decision. The search committee assessed the candidates, came to consensus on their clear choice, and recommended their selection to the board. The search firm checked references, and after the board’s unanimous vote, negotiated salary, etc. An offer was made and accepted and a start date set. This organization was about to begin its next chapter.
As the new executive director settled in, she took in stride that some of the staff was still friendly with the former executive director. She focused on cultivating her own relationships with them. Board meetings appeared to go well and the search committee members felt good about their selection. Everyone seemed to be adapting. Then things changed.
In the fourth month of her tenure, the executive director was absent from the board meeting. The board chair announced that she had tendered her resignation that afternoon. He disparaged her and lodged petty complaints. When asked by a search committee member what had happened, he said he regretted asking the former executive to resign and was staying in contact with her. In fact, she was his confidant about the leadership transition and they discussed the new leader regularly. Moreover, during the previous three months, he had conveyed his lack of support to the new executive. The collective astonishment was palpable. The look on his face betrayed the fact that he had knowingly undermined the transition process.
In so many ways the organization lost because of the board chair’s acts of sabotage. Its reputation suffered. Board members resigned and took with them their personal contacts who had been individual donors. The staff was concerned about the organization’s future as well as their jobs. Moreover, because of the circumstances of the new leader’s departure, the search firm was wary of launching a new search to honor their guarantee.
How Might There Have Been a Better Outcome
In hindsight, this nonprofit board neglected to have some crucial conversations around their decision regarding the former executive director and moving forward following her departure.There was a lack of authenticity on the part of the board chair and perhaps even a breach of his fiduciary duty in that role.
Here are some other steps that might have made a difference:
- Taking more time to engage in open and honest conversations so that individual board members could better separate their personal feelings for the prior executive director from their role as trustees of the organization.
- Thinking more broadly about the situation as a leadership transition, not simply a search to hire a new executive director.
- Allowing more time to pass before embarking on a search. Because there was a competent interim in place, perhaps the board could have decided to wait six months before launching a search, thus permitting the organization to acclimate.
- Creating a transition task force to work with the new executive to help her navigate and acclimate to the organization, to function as a sounding board and a safe space for candid conversation.
- Calling out the board chair for his reckless and immature behavior so as not to repeat this scenario with another candidate.
This story could have had a different ending had there not been an element of dysfunction at the root. After all, if there had been appropriate oversight of the initial executive director, problems might have been identified earlier and remediated.
Often there is more than meets the eye in boardroom dynamics, especially in a situation like this – executive transition. It is imperative for a board to engage in deep discussion and assessment, surfacing and addressing all issues, before launching a search. Honesty and transparency are always important. This is particularly true when an organization is at as crucial a juncture as an executive transition.