A new year often inspires life changes, big or small. Among these are the decision to pursue a new job or career. Because employees at all levels contribute to the fulfillment of your mission, nonprofit leaders need to be tuned into staffing transitions throughout the organization. How a nonprofit executive copes with staff transitions both draws from and contributes to the organizational culture. If handled well, a staff transition can boost an organization’s well-being and capacity, but if handled poorly, morale and service continuity can suffer.

The Scenario

We have all been there: A trusted, valued employee walks into your office to give notice — the time has come to move on. Whether due to personal circumstances that necessitate a change, a new career opportunity, or any other of the many possibilities that lead to such a decision, how chief executives respond to this event sets the stage for the ultimate success of weathering the transition.

So often nonprofit executives must move into action with little time to prepare. The usual “two weeks’ notice” puts a strain on all organizations, though those that are small and/or under-staffed are particularly vulnerable. It is a rare luxury to have time to think through a staff transition and its implications for team spirit and getting the work done.

Here are some recommendations I make to all organizations I work with, regardless of size:

Be Prepared

Prepared nonprofit executives — those who have thought about staff changes — fare better in times of employee transition than those who do not. No surprise here! What does being prepared mean? It means having the tools and processes in place in order to take quick action to assess the organizational needs, conduct a search to fill the open position, and manage the transition positively. One tool is a set of up-to-date job descriptions. With these on file, because of regular review, a nonprofit executive can take charge immediately of a situation that may seem to be spinning out of control.

Embrace Change

Viewing an employee’s departure as an opportunity contributes to making the transition a success. It is a chance to reflect on the organization’s future needs in terms of the particular position. The strengths of the departing employee may be on the list of what to replicate in a new candidate; additionally, there may be desired variations that will enhance and advance the organization. Engaging in due diligence* – thinking about how the position affects organizational success, the achievement of strategic goals, successful mission fulfillment – before going public with the job posting supports creating a portrait of the ideal candidate. With this in mind, spotting that next successful staff person happens by design. However, this is a difficult perspective to adopt when feeling blindsided by the circumstances.

Foster a Culture of Openness

Another beneficial practice in managing staff transitions is cultivating a culture in which professional, personal, and organizational goals and growth are topics of conversation. Not only is staff more likely to be open and share their thoughts about their career development in such a culture, they may even seek out the nonprofit executive as a source of advice, support, and encouragement. Nonprofit leaders who adopt this open-minded approach are more likely to know when change is in the air and less likely to be caught short when the time comes for someone to move on.

A Case in Point: The Small, Lean Organization Rethinks Its Culture

In one nonprofit, the executive director lived in constant anxiety that one of her small cadre would leave for a new opportunity. Her organization had no capacity to spare – and it always was disruptive when someone left.

The organizational structure of this nonprofit was flat, consisting of the executive director, a finance manager, program manager, development director, and a few staff at the coordinator level. With the exception of the executive director, the small staff was relatively young and this job was a first or second position in their work lives. Growth within the organization usually meant taking on more responsibility and perhaps a title change, for instance from coordinator to manager or from manager to director. Real professional growth meant finding a new job in another organization. From a leadership standpoint, the executive director never knew when a transition was imminent.

While working with the organization to clarify roles, align job descriptions with organizational needs, link performance goals to strategic goals, and develop a performance evaluation process, I had wide-ranging conversations with the executive director on how to manage the effects of staffing transitions on a small organization.

The Happy Result!

When this executive director decided to make a culture shift to normalize conversations about professional development and career paths, it proved to be a pivot point. The executive director, who enjoyed positive, healthy relationships with staff, began to be viewed as a mentor as well as a supervisor. The performance evaluation process took on a vital role beyond that of aligning individual and organizational goals for delivering the mission and implementing the strategic plan. It included a focus on growth and career paths.

The success of the new candor and thinking ahead paid off. At annual evaluation time, in January, a highly competent, well-liked marketing coordinator informed the executive director that she had applied to graduate school and would be leaving in August. With over six months until the transition, the executive director had ample time to look strategically at the staffing configuration and determine the best route to go when hiring to fill the position. The bonus in this was that there were no secrets. Openness had enhanced the organization’s ability to plan and adapt.

In the end, staff changes are a regular part of doing business and managing an organization. How smooth the transitions will be depends on the processes in place, the organization’s culture, and the ability of the leader to lead.

*I will be writing about the needs assessment, an essential tool in organizational due diligence, in a future blog post. Stay tuned!