Advice for boards during CEO transitions

The most important job of any nonprofit board of directors is to hire, guide and replace the CEO (their only employee). If they get it right, the organization can thrive. If they get it wrong, disaster awaits. There is absolutely nothing more important; it is tough work. If a CEO transition falls in your lap as a nonprofit board member, or particularly as its chair, you’re in a position to make history. Getting it right matters.

Having a capable and effective successor waiting in the wings to replace an existing CEO is an optimum situation. Many organizations spend time and resources investing in the development of such a person. Usually following the announcement that a CEO is departing, that is the first conversation the board has. Is someone internally ready for the job? If the answer is no, the next steps are obvious — conduct an external search, name an interim (who is not likely to be a serious candidate), and proceed to interviews.

But if the answer is yes and there IS a strong internal candidate, which there ideally should be, my advice is to NOT make them interim director. Do not make them interview against outside candidates. Interview them for the top job as soon as possible, and if you like them, hire them. If the answer is no or even maybe, the relationship is probably headed south, and you are free to do whatever you want.

Usually when this situation arises, someone on the board will advocate for making your internal successor compete against outside candidates. It only takes one passionate voice to cause boards to pursue this course of action. But I encourage you to resist. Making a tenured and qualified internal candidate interview against outside candidates sends a message to that individual, the staff and community that the board wasn’t fully confident in their abilities. It undermines their confidence and sense of mandate. It drags the entire staff through months of uncertainty, wreaking havoc on workplace morale.

Boards, when you have a strong internal candidate to replace your CEO, have the heart and will to do right by them. Interview them first for the job, then say yes or say no. It’s that simple. If the answer is yes, you will have demonstrated your support for them from the start, which is critical for their success. It also enforces their position in relation to the staff and the community. It sends a message of stability. Moreover, it is entirely consistent with how to treat people you care about it, want to invest in, and plan your organization’s future around. Having an internal candidate compete against outside candidates to validate your selection isn’t worth it. I have known many CEOs over the years who were jilted by this process, beginning their new job as your leader feeling diminished and suspicious of your support. Do you really want that?

The line is often thin between what a board can and should do in these situations. For instance, boards often hire one of their own to replace the CEO. This is very common and technically not improper. But it is sort of the nonprofit board equivalent of a person marrying their deceased spouse’s best friend. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it makes you wonder. As with all things, try to make decisions that don’t leave a trace of doubt. ●

Daniel Flowers is President and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank

Daniel Flowers

President and CEO


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