What happens when a leader leaves? 10 tips for departing NFP senior managers and CEOs

What happens when a leader leaves? 10 tips for departing NFP senior managers and CEOs

No job is forever. Even the most essential and inspirational leaders will eventually leave the NFP sector, and it’s never too early to start preparing for that day.

When an organisation’s CEO or a senior executive leaves an organisation – especially if they have been in the role for a lengthy period of time or have been a transformational leader – their departure can create anxiety amongst staff and the board of management.

However, a well managed transition period can help put the organisation’s collective mind at ease, manage the emotions of both the departing CEO or senior manager and those staying on and ensure that your organisation is ready to thrive in the next chapter of its life.

Here are ten things that a leader can do to ensure a smooth handover.

1. Take charge

When a CEO leaves, it’s theoretically the board’s responsibility to organise the succession.  In reality, if you’re a CEO, you need to initiate the succession-planning process with the board.

The same goes for other senior leaders: you can – and should – initiate succession planning. Leading well needs to include leaving well.

2. Start early

To make sure your organisation is fully prepared with a formal succession plan in place,  you should start thinking about when you might leave your position two to three years in advance. This is obviously easier if you’re heading towards retirement, but at least one year of planning for a job or career transition of a senior leader is ideal.

Some of the ways you might start planning early – without having to reveal your departure plans – include:

  • Engaging in organisational sustainability or capacity-building work with your team or board
  • Developing a CEO succession plan with the board that includes how the organisation would manage the CEO leaving under a number of different circumstances,
  • Come up with a backup plan for your position such as identifying other employees that could step in and fill the role if necessary

3. Stick to your departure date

Being vague about – or changing – your leaving date can damage morale, and make other staff members’ planning processes much more complicated,  so as soon as practical pick a specific leaving date (or at least a leaving month) and stick to it.

4. Recognise your two new roles

As a CEO or senior manager in the process of leaving an organisation you are still required to be a leader and undertake your regular duties.

But, in addition to this you have two new roles: preparing the organisation for transition, and preparing yourself for the next phase of your life.

It can be an overwhelming time, so encouraging other people in the organisation (and for a CEO, the board) to step up and take ownership of the transition process can ease some of the pressure.

5. Be a good communicator

Plan who needs to be told, when they need to be told and in what order. Generally a departing CEO will tell the board chair first followed by senior staff, broader staff and then a public announcement to key stakeholders.

For a senior manager, start with your CEO and then follow a similar approach.

6. Engage other leaders as soon as possible

There will understandably be some anxieties about your departure. So, letting other leaders in your organisation know about your departure, and approaching them with a draft exit strategy as soon as possible will alleviate stress and increase engagement.

How early to approach depends on the strength of your relationships, but having a draft exit plan ready will also help with any relationships where trust might be lacking.

7. Prepare your organisation

As the old adage goes – leave the place in better condition than when you found it. That means revisit your position description and work with your board or other leaders to rewrite it for where the organisation wants to go in the future, not just for what your current duties look like.

8. Prepare yourself

Prepare yourself as best you can for a new role by giving yourself a break in between roles– if possible – or at the very least not having your two roles overlap. Some recommended reading is Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days, which you can use to help you develop an “entry plan”.

If you’re heading into retirement, four factors for a successful retirement are:

  • Sufficient post-retirement income,
  • Health and well-being,
  • Meaningful engagement with a social support network, and
  • Ongoing engagement in something that matters to you and matters to the world.

9. Manage the drama

Whether you are heading to a new role or heading into retirement, the transition will inevitably be stressful, both for yourself and for the organisation. As for yourself, you can find more info here to lessen that stress.

As staff and stakeholders grow anxious about your impending departure, uncertain of what the new organisation leader might be like and what the future holds, empathy is key. Through great planning, open communication with your staff, and listening to their concerns you can go some way to alleviating some of the stress.

10. Leave gracefully and decisively

Plan your handover to a new leader as thoroughly as possible, but let them step up and take the lead in it.

If you plan to have an active, ongoing role with the organisation, you will need to be flexible – and defer as often as possible – to make things work for your successor.

Especially if you’re retiring, suggest a check-in timeline, where you can check back in with your successor to see if there’s any additional help you can offer when they’ve had some weeks or months to settle into the role.

Accept acknowledgement of your service to your organisation gracefully, but don’t demand it.

If you’ve got your own tips to help CEOs or leaders to successfully transition from an NFP organisation, we’d love to hear your insights in the comments below!

This blog was based on a post originally by the Bridgespan Group .

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