Through the Looking Glass: When the new CEO and the old CEO collide

alice and the doorA few months ago, I bumped into someone who recently accepted a new executive director position for a non-profit organization. I thought that it would be a neat project to live vicariously through them and try to see non-profit work through their eyes. So, I asked if they wouldn’t mind periodically sharing their challenges and successes with me throughout their first year on the job. In turn, I would translate those conversations into blog posts for DonorDreams subscribers. Fortunately, they agreed to participate in this exercise. I am calling this series “Through the Looking Glass” in honor of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. I hope you enjoy it!

I hope to start each one of these posts with a quote from Alice in Wonderland that ties back to the theme of that particular post. Today, I think the conversation between Alice and the talking door at the beginning of Alice’s adventure is most appropriate.

Door: “Why it’s simply impassible!”
Alice: “Why, don’t you mean impossible?”
Door: “No, I do mean impassible. (chuckles) Nothing’s impossible!”

Sometimes when a new non-profit executive director is hired, there is a transition period between OLD and NEW. It can be the old executive director staying on to help with orientation and training of the new executive director. In other instances, it can be the interim executive director overlapping with the incoming CEO.

When I was a new executive director, the interim executive director stayed on as an employee as a direct report with front line responsibilities. In the instance of our new executive director friend, the former executive director is hanging around for a while. Unfortunately, no one on the board in the beginning defined what this should look like, and there has been some ambiguity around what that employment relationship looks like and when it will end.

When I recently checked in to see how our new CEO was doing, they already had a great blog idea. They titled that blog post “What to do when the old CEO won’t cough up info for the new CEO“.

Who would’ve guessed that without an orderly written transition and orientation plan provided by the board of directors that something like this would happen? (yes, sarcasm is intended)

So, I asked our new executive director this simple question: “That is a great blog topic, but what advice would you give new execs?

alice and the door2This is how they responded:

  1. Politely but firmly continue to request the info (first verbally,then  in writing, and finally in writing with a cc to the Board Chair and Vice Chair).
  2. Doing a work around to obtain the info in other ways.
  3. Using empathy and compassion to analyze the reluctance to share information. Then re-framing the request for info as a way of moving the organization forward and helping with transition.
  4. Talking to the Board Chair and Vice Chair.
  5. Asking who else I should be talking to in order to obtain the needed info.  (e.g. maybe the former ED doesn’t have the information at all and doesn’t want me to know this)

This challenge is REAL for this new executive director. It is also a reality for countless others across the county. Here are a few great online articles and resources that I found that might be helpful to non-profit organizations going through or planning on going through executive transition:

I thought it would be more appropriate to end each of these blog posts by opening it up to the DonorDreams readership and asking you what kind of advice you have for this new executive director. Please use the comment section below and provide your best world-class coaching advice. How would you go about engaging the outgoing executive director to get the documents and information they are needed for a seamless transition?

We can all learn from each other and sometimes peer-to-peer coaching is the best kind of coaching. Please take a minute or two out of your busy schedule to help this new executive director. Pay it forward!

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on February 5, 2013, in leadership, nonprofit, organizational development and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Excellent questions!

    I recommend the new CEO schedule a meeting with the old CEO and the Chair to put a formal transition plan including dates on paper. That meeting should lay out who works with the Board and committees, who speaks for the organization, how information is to be shared, who has authority for what decisions, and who is responsible for managing the staff (and how that authority is getting communicated and reinforced with the staff) until that transition is finalized.

    Once those questions are put on the table, it will quickly become clear that the current plan is not working.

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