raffa resources
raffa resources
raffa resources
​The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices

​Executive summary - A call for service integration

Twenty-five years ago, most people in the nonprofit sector knew of or had experienced a disastrous executive transition. Organizations failed or floundered; client services were lost or disrupted; funder trust was shattered; careers were ruined. Such stories have diminished over the last two decades as the field of executive transitions has come into its own. National organizations (NeighborWorks America, Girl Scouts of America, United Way of America) and national funders (W. K. Kellogg Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation) joined with local and regional management support organizations, funders, consultants, and interim executives to develop this work.

The theory at the heart of executive transition work is that organizational effectiveness and leadership effectiveness are inextricably linked. Moreover, transitions provide a rare opportunity for organizational self-analysis and growth—a time when the organization can reposition itself for the future needs of its community. These are also times of great vulnerability.

This paper explains the practice of executive transition as it has evolved from the simplicity of executive search to a collection of allied disciplines aimed at positioning organizations for leadership succession and long-term mission impact. Allied disciplines include:

  • The use of professional interim executives.
  • The practice of executive transition, an intentional, three-phase process involving a) organizational
    assessment and preparation; b) a deliberate and comprehensive search for the best candidate to
    meet the organization’s coming needs; and c) the careful onboarding of the new executive.
  • Succession planning, which may include emergency backup plan, succession policy, leader and
    talent development, and departure-defined planning.
  • Sustainability planning, focused on ensuring long-term mission impact and organizational
    effectiveness through attention to leadership, strategy/business model, resources, and culture.

Evaluation information in the form of customer satisfaction surveys and retention studies, along with anecdotal observations, tells us that these services make a difference in the performance of organizations. Workshops, publications, conference sessions, and other actions have helped disseminate knowledge about the growing field. There is now an affinity group as part of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management focused on improving the work of executive transition consultants and interim executives. Funders and funding networks have devoted considerable resources to the growth of the practice.

This paper identifies significant challenges in the next steps for this field. We acknowledge that while the actions proposed here will make a difference, there are larger factors that need attention. These include the major problems of expanding diversity in leadership; the overdependence on “heroic” leaders and the “overpromised” structure of the nonprofit executive position; uneven board leadership across the sector; and the ongoing lack of financial resources. Beyond these, the field faces a host of challenges in improving the work of subspecialties (e.g., transition specialists, interim executives, executive search, sustainability consultants) while grappling with the need to better integrate these disciplines so that organizations that use them have the best help possible. Along these lines, the paper suggests numerous questions and guidance for further discussion by board leaders, executives, funders, and consultants.

  • Board leaders should note especially the section titled Boards and their leaders; Appendix 1. For board leaders and executives navigating an executive transition; and Appendix 2. For board leaders appointing an interim executive director.
  • Executive directors and senior management should note especially the section titled Executives; and Appendix 1. For board leaders and executives navigating an executive transition.
  • Funders should note especially the section titled Funders; and Appendix 3. Opportunities for funders to help integrate executive transition and allied practices.
  • Consultants and interim executives should note especially the section titled Consultants and interim executives; Appendix 4. Opportunities for consultants to advance the field; and Appendix 5. Standards for executive transition and interim executive practitioners.

Executive transition and its allied practices have evolved to ensure greater mission impact. The history and recommendations in this paper are intended to ensure that all leaders are familiar with proven practices for executive transition; to expedite the integration of executive transition with the allied practices of succession planning and sustainability planning, and to make the processes more easily understood by board and executives. We hope leaders, funders, and consultants will:

  • Continue to recognize and use positively the power of executive transition and understand the
    risks to and opportunities for organizational advancement these transitions offer;
  • View leader transitions in the larger context of ongoing attention to mission, organizational
    sustainability, leader development, and succession;
  • Take actions that consistently lead to improved mission and sector impact through tailoring and
    integration of actions to the size, mission, and needs of each organization; and
  • Pay attention to needed changes in organizational and sector habits required to advance
    organizational and sector impact.

Click here to read the full essay.