As the adage goes, the only constant in life is change. When a transition occurs at the top of any organization, it needs to be managed with good judgment and planning for the future success of the organization and all its stakeholders. In a nonprofit, it is the board’s role to handle this process.

Why Conduct a Needs Assessment?

Indeed, the stakes are high for a nonprofit board of directors charged with the responsibility of managing an executive leadership transition. Among the many questions that loom are:

  • What is the scope of the chief executive’s job?
  • What are the necessary skills the next chief executive must possess in order to lead the organization to its next level?
  • What are the personal qualities the next executive must possess in order to be a culture and values fit with the organization and a leader for the staff?
  • How do we prepare for a smooth transition for the new executive?
  • How do we lay the groundwork for staff support for the new chief executive?

The way to answer these questions and others that may surface as part of the due diligence required in an executive leadership transition is through a needs assessment. It is an important first step in a successful search and transition. It is a way to unpack the job of the chief executive and behaviors that bode well for success in the position, identify important organizational issues that may be “below the water line,” and engage the staff appropriately in this board led activity.

Moreover, the needs assessment findings become the basis for creating the job description for the position. The findings give shape to the outline of the portrait of the ideal candidate. Without having a clear picture of the organization’s needs and the skills and qualities of the ideal candidate, interviews may be inconsistent, leaving a board with a field of candidates so disparate it is difficult to identify, much less select, the best one.

While they know much, many board members don’t have a deep enough understanding of the role of the chief executive. They may underestimate some aspects of the job and overestimate others. Because of the appropriate distinction between the chief executive’s ownership of the management of the organization and the board’s ownership of governance, they may be unaware of internal issues that affect the next executive’s ability to manage and lead.

In one client engagement, during the needs assessment process, I discovered that the departing executive had often used the board of directors as a scapegoat when delivering difficult news to staff. This practice set up a dynamic of distrust causing staff to be skeptical that the board really had the organization’s best interests at heart generally, and specifically as it searched for a new chief executive. Having learned this, the board was able to take steps to rewrite the narrative and assure the staff of their sharp focus on hiring the best leader – someone who, among other things, would value the staff and their contribution to fulfilling the mission, and be honest with them.

In another engagement, including staff at all levels and from multiple sites in a town hall meeting reinforced the degree to which the core values permeated every aspect of the organization. The consistent message, from program directors to maintenance staff, underscored the significance that embracing the nonprofit’s values would have to the new leader’s success.

Whom to Engage and Why

Because holding the organization in trust for future generations is an essential board responsibility, engaging board members is integral to a comprehensive needs assessment. Further, if a search committee or transition task force has been created, it is imperative to engage all board members early in the process. The full board’s involvement in articulating the job specifications and primary selection criteria ensures their participation in the process, which leads to their support for hiring the candidate recommended by the search committee.

One of the initial issues to resolve when managing an executive leadership transition is the role of the staff. Often, staff are dismayed to learn that they are not going to be major players in the decision making process. A needs assessment provides a unique opportunity to learn from staff about the internal issues that are essential to accurately outlining the job. Moreover, it is an opportunity to communicate with staff so that they understand the process and their role in it, which is to provide important input that leads to additional insights for an ultimately effective, successful search.

How to Conduct a Needs Assessment

Engaging a consultant to conduct the assessment supports getting candid responses from participants. It permits identifying what is below the water line. Often issues surface that would not come up if, say, a board member were asking the questions. With an outside observer asking the questions, there are no biases that could subtly relay the desire for a particular response. The information leading to developing the job description and portrait of the ideal next chief executive is likely to represent true consensus.

Some Essential Questions to Ask

Everything learned through the needs assessment is worthwhile information. The questions to ask can be divided into the following categories:

  • About the position – What exactly does the chief executive do? Is the role largely focused internally or externally? Or is it a combination?
  • About the relationships – Who are the different individuals and groups, internal and external, with whom the chief executive interacts? What is the nature of these diverse relationships? Why do they matter to the nonprofit’s success?
  • About the duties and responsibilities – What are the strategic, organizational areas for which this position is responsible? What are the organizational priorities?
  • About skills and personal qualities – What does the ideal candidate need to know or be able to do? What experiences are viewed as formative – those that suggest a candidate is ready for this new position? What personal traits must someone possess in order to function well within the organization’s culture? What behaviors suggest a values match between candidate and organization?

The Added Value of Two-Way Communication

Executive leadership transitions can be mysterious endeavors. They are complicated undertakings for any nonprofit board of directors. In my experience advising boards that are managing such transitions, communicating with staff is an essential aspect of success. The process of engaging staff in the needs assessment fosters a dialogue and ensures that this key stakeholder group is welcomed appropriately in the process. Information shared by those leading the search and transition activities enhances for staff their confidence in the search process and outcome, as well as the overall resiliency of the organization.

For another angle on this topic, please read my post, At the Threshold of a Leadership Transition: What’s on the Other Side?