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raffa resources
​The Big Question for Seasoned Executives: How Long to Stay?
​By Tom Adams, Director of Succession and Sustainability at Raffa, P.C.
 
Esther Newman, Executive Director of Leadership Montgomery for 25 years, began asking the question eight years ago. Bill Bolling, CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, mused about it for over decades and began active planning four years ago. Keith Peterson, former CEO of Penn-Mar Human Services, had decided on a set date and let his Board Chair know informally two years in advance.
 
Nonprofit executives share the desire to have a great ending when they step out of their executive role. This is not an easy question for most executives and is particularly challenging for those who have devoted a significant part of their professional career to building and/or transforming an organization.  So how does an executive answer the big question? Here are the top five things nonprofit executives should begin to think of when deciding ‘how long to stay:’
 
1. What are your personal and professional goals beyond leading this organization?
Over time a leader’s perspective and goals change. Some want to spend more time with aging parents or children/grandchildren. Others have always had a passion for a hobby or for travel. Setting personal goals and paying attention to what activities energize helps inform how long to plan to stay. What’s next for you?
 
2. How are your relationships within the organization?
Is there a positive working relationship between you, the board, managers or staff? If so, this is a great sign that you are enjoying your role and it is working for the organization. If relations are strained, it is helpful to ask if that strain has to do with whether you and members of your organization believe you are still be the right person for your role or have the energy needed to be effective for much longer.
 
3. How is the organization performing?
Is the organization in a growth period, adjusting to recent growth or rebuilding after a difficult period? What does the organization need and want from its executive during this cycle? Do you want to and are you able to offer that leadership?
 
4. How will I know it is time to move on?
Are there organizational milestones pending, such as the development of a new program or a fundraising campaign that you want to complete? When these milestones are completed, do you want to sign up for leading the next big agenda for the organization or is that a good time to consider transition? What are the signs you will look for that show you have completed what you’ve set out to do and it’s time to begin planning a transition?
 
5. What can I do now to make sure both the organization and I are ready for planned or unplanned departure?
Personally, do you have a rainy day fund for unexpected expenses or events? Are you clear on what you need to do to prepare financially for the long-term? Is the organization ready for unplanned departures of key leaders?  Is there an emergency plan and a succession policy for the executive and key executives?
 
Getting help in planning your eventual exit is tricky business. You don’t want to lose control of when you depart your executive role. Unfortunately, these concerns too often stop executives from taking steps to prepare for their transitions until it is too late to make a difference. Early attention, years before departure, to the question above greatly increases the odds of a successful transition when it occurs.
 
Raffa has helped over 600 long-tenured executives and founders start their personal and professional planning early, including Esther, Bill and Keith, at our Next Steps workshop. Executives who attend our workshops vary widely in when they plan to leave, ranging from 1-5 years. Some have no plan, but want to work with their Board and managers on succession and sustainability.  Others want to consider ‘what’s next’ for them in both their personal and professional lives.
 
To learn more about raffa’s succession and sustainability practice, contact tom adams at 202.955.7245 or tadams@raffa.com
 
Below are testimonials from Ester, Bill, and Keith on their experience attending the Next Steps workshop.
 
Next Steps Workshop Testimonials
 
“I knew when I attended the workshop I was not ready to leave. The lesson-learned for me from going many years before retirement was how a sabbatical could be good for me and the organization and how to plan for unplanned absences.”
Esther Newman, Executive Director
Leadership Montgomery
 
“My call to fight hunger and begin the Atlanta Community Food Bank in 1979 was based on the belief that food could be a tool for transformation of individuals and institution alike. I wanted to make a difference for those most in need in our community. But my interests have always been broader than distributing food. The Food Bank gave me a place to engage, educate, and empower the community to fight hunger.  It encouraged & supported me to be a social entrepreneur, to take the best ideas and bring them life. 

The Board and I began talking about preparing for my transition over five years ago. We weren’t sure how to get started or how long it would take. Going to Next Steps and learning how building a strong management team and Board and preparing myself to leave a great organization for the next leader was the beginning of an effective process. The workshop and the services gave us a road map and the support to take each step of the journey.”
Bill Bolling, Executive Director
Atlanta Community Food Bank

“My wife and I had a plan for when I would retire. I had worked at Penn-Mar as COO and CEO for 18 years. I knew all the people we served and their families. I wanted to make sure the organization would continue to provide the same great services after I retired. Our Board Chair found Raffa and got them involved in succession planning. I found out about the workshop and found it extremely helpful to be with 20 other executives facing the same questions. That two-day investment made the whole process of transition less confusing and fearful for me and gave me tools to use as I helped the Board and let go and handed over leadership to my COO through a planned transition.”
 
Keith Peterson, Retired CEO
Penn-Mar Human Services