“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
This quote by Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe, strikes us as being a very relevant message to consider during leadership transitions in the nonprofit sector.
Because an organization evolves under its leadership, when faced with leadership transition, it’s critical the executives and board members take a moment to pause and assess the current needs and desired future of the organization they are so carefully stewarding.
Even though transitions can be fraught with risk and vulnerability, realizing this as an opportunity to refresh and revitalize the organization can bring a new level of excitement to the board and staff. With the right planning and tools, a leadership transition can result in “a positive, forward-looking relationship between an executive who fits the organization’s leadership needs and an organization and board that is prepared to work with this talented new leader” (Managing Executive Transitions, Tim Wolfred, p. 24).
But in order to make the space for pause, it’s important that every organization have in place an emergency leadership transition plan. And during the transition an organization’s leadership should invest in the three phases of executive transition management: prepare, pivot, and thrive.
To prepare the organization’s leadership clarifies the direction of the organization and the competencies and skills necessary for an executive. The leadership should assess where the organization is going and what kind of leader will get them there. To pivot, the leadership must focus on the executive search and selection, and keeping staff morale high and engaged. And finally to thrive, leadership should spend a significant amount of effort to properly orient and support the new executive, making sure she/he has the time needed to fully grasp the community and its challenges.
Even though leadership transitions can feel overwhelming and uncertain, it is in this space of discomfort that organizations can make great strides to achieving their missions and growing to meet the needs of the community.