Part 3: 1 powerful skill puts the “success” in succession

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So, what puts the “success” in succession?

It’s your lifeline!

Whether you’re a board member or the incoming CEO in the trenches of transitioning, a leader’s ability to connect, communicate and build relationships with people is core to success.

Yet, a startling percentage of new CEOs—one-third to one-half—fail within their first 18 months.

When succession fails, author Dan Ciampa says the responsibility is almost always shared. The “flameout” can often be attributed to the new leader’s poor, strategic direction or result from the board making an imperfect choice. When human behavior is involved, nothing is ever predictable.

So, how can board members support new CEOs and vice versa?

The Change Agenda

Prepare for a new leader by creating a change agenda that charts the transition plan. A CEO transition is NOT the same as onboarding, which is a short-term, agenda-driven orientation program of briefings and meetings. The CEO’s transition, as we discussed in last week’s issue, is a longer process of both formal and informal engagements, planned and impromptu. It starts when the board’s choice accepts the position and will last for months after the CEO arrives on the scene.

The soft stuff is the hard stuff.

View the CEO transition as the second part of a comprehensive succession.

Most new leaders fail not because their financial or operational abilities are inadequate but because their communication style or political skills render them unprepared to manage the organization’s culture. Your CEO’s integration into the organization (and the role) involves emotions, ego, beliefs about the organization’s future, and particularly organizational culture and politics.

To reduce the odds of succession failure, be intentional in designing activities that will maximize the CEO’s chances of success—focusing on building a base of support among key stakeholders (staff, board, clients, supporters, and partners).

Harness power positively and productively.

Tune into the power dynamics and how the organization’s culture will influence a strategy shift OR define the cultural changes necessary to support a strategy shift. Help the new CEO understand the organization’s culture and how decions are made—so they can appreciate the organization’s biases about change.

Stay close…nose in, hands out.

For board members: how much distance should you keep during a CEO’s transition?

You’re not at the organization full-time and you cannot and should not micromanage. But there is a danger in being too remote. Directors often want to give the new leader room as an expression of confidence, but Ciampa says this respectful gesture can leave board members out of touch. The best boards strike a balance between being uninvolved and over-involved.

When boards fail to find balance, it’s usually because they’re too distant. Bridge this gap with clear expectations.

Pro Tips for Expectation Setting:

For the Board:
  1. What kind of in-between meeting communication do you expect from the new CEO?
  2. Do you prefer to weigh in or vote on fully-formed, deeply-researched plans and proposals? Or do you want to have a hand in guiding nascent strategic ideas?
  3. Encourage all board members to meet with the new CEO at the beginning of their season.
For the CEO:
  1. What information do you need from the board to be able to do the job effectively?
  2. What behavior on the board’s part will help ensure trusting relationships at board meetings, between them, and in one-on-one conversations?
  3. From your experience during the search process and in your first few meetings, what’s one thing you would change about how the board operates to have a healthy relationship?
  4. Watch out for the temptation to keep your own counsel. The board and staff have insight and wisdom that can help you acclimate successfully.

As we wrap up our 3 Part Series: Onboarding Leaders in the Great Reshuffling, what did you learn that surprised you? Where were you able to get unstuck or find clarity to move forward? Hit “reply” and drop me a note.

I’d love to celebrate your wins as we all cha-cha through this season of shuffling.


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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