Executive Transitions and Succession Planning…Oh, My!

Executive Transitions and Succession Planning…Oh, My!Shhhh…..we can’t talk about that!  So….What is the big secret?  The big secret is that executives of nonprofits are projected to leave the sector in droves.   Some estimates are as high as 75%!  (New data was just released in the Daring to Lead 2011  national study.)

This week I facilitated a training with board leaders from nonprofits at the Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Ventura County Community Foundation.  From what they told me, the projections of 75% are actually low!  Would you believe that everyone in the room said that they had either had an executive transition in the last two years or expected one in the next two at their organizations?

One board member of one of the larger nonprofits said that his organization had had 3 executive transitions in the last 10 years and expected more in the next couple.  A foundation board member who was part of the discussion pointed out that when they see this kind of transition in a nonprofit that his foundation doesn’t want to fund that organization.  In addition, they directly ask if the nonprofit has a succession plan.  And if they don’t?  That is a thumbs down for giving them a grant.  So, in addition to being bad board oversight and negligent management, not having an executive transition and succession plan may be costing the nonprofit important funding dollars.

I asked these board members how come executive transition and succession planning is not talked about?  (They took my Leadership Transition Audit and they failed miserably, so I know they are not talking about it!  You can download the Leadership and Transition Audit here.)

This is what they told me:

  1. Talking about Succession feels like a threat to job security;
  2. The topic is a political minefield;
  3. They are in denial and don’t want to face the possibility of losing and replacing their executive;
  4. Change is viewed in a negative light rather than as an opportunity.

What should you do if you are involved with an organization where executive transition and succession planning is a taboo subject?  Here is what I suggest:

  1. Have that first difficult conversation with someone at the organization to get the topic on the table.
  2. Suggest creating an “emergency” transition/succession plan as a first step.  If your executive gets hit by a truck, god forbid, you need a plan!
  3. Request that Succession Planning be put on the agenda as a regular board item.

If the experience I had this week is any indication, and I suspect that it is a good one, you will be glad you did.  There is a very good chance that an organization that you care about is facing a transition of an executive for which it is not prepared.   That means its future is in jeopardy.

Already in the midst of an executive transition?  The Daring to Lead 2011 report makes two excellent suggestions:

“Increased support for and utilization of executive coaching, which stands out as a professional development activity that executives say is highly effective but is used by a relatively small number of nonprofit executives. “

“Support for new executive directors, perhaps from a coach or consultant, during

their first few years on the job, when they are especially vulnerable to burnout.”

If you would like to discuss how coaching might support an executive transition that you have planned or is already in the works, please call me for a free complimentary session at 805.448.7681 or schedule a session using my on-line calendar.



p.s. I always am interested in what you think about these discussions. Please post your thoughts on the blog…your constructive criticism and support is appreciated!

Dr. Lynn K. Jones
, Certified Personal and Executive Coach

Your Mojo Maven

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach. Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values.  An MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment.



  1. Keisha Lowe on July 30, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    Dr. Jones,

    Reading your blog caused me to become excited and optimistic about my goal to serve in an executive management position. It showed me that the very high projection of transition with nonprofit executives will open doors for young, passionate, and driven nonprofit professionals. I am glad that I am making the efforts now to train, educate, and prepare myself for when such an opportunity comes to me. I want to be ready and able to step up to the plate and to accept the position.

    I really enjoyed and appreciated reading this blog.


    • lynnkjones on July 30, 2011 at 3:52 pm

      It is so heartwarming that you are excited about the potential opportunities created by the turnover that is anticipated in nonprofits in the next few years for younger professionals like yourself. And you are so right–your timing couldn’t be better for training and educating yourself so that you are positioned to step into one of these roles! It is exciting to think that our nonprofits are going to be infused with the energy and professionalism of executives like you! The person in my seminar who talked about seeing the opportunities in this life cycle of nonprofits was so right! Thanks for commenting!
      Dr. Jones

  2. Mystery novelist on July 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Along with a succession plan and coaching, I have found that boards should often consider an interim CEO as well. He or she can take the heat of transition from staff, funders and other stakeholders while the search committee recruits a permanent CEO who takes over when the transition dust has settled and has a better chance to succeed.

    • lynnkjones on July 30, 2011 at 4:01 pm

      You are so right. I have served as an interim on occasion myself and it works really well. I think especially if you have a really strong organizational culture established by an executive who has been there a long time, an interim can be make a big difference. The likelihood of the executive stepping into a situation like that succeeding (particularly if there has not been a good transition and succession plan or coaching) is not very good. I suspect that was the case in the organization that I mentioned where there had been several transitions. The board member said that there were board members that had been involved with the organization for many years and were not accepting of the new executives. I suggested to him that he was dealing with an organizational culture issue. Hiring an interim to lay the ground work and deal with these culture issues probably would have been a big help. Thanks for adding that to the discussion!

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