Board Dilemmas: Our Executive Director is leaving!


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It is one of the lines that few board members want to here. The Executive Director shares, “I am leaving this organization.” While Executive Directors may leave for various and valid reasons, a board of directors is typically left in an unexpected and time-consuming situation.  At PMA, we have observed that few organizations take the time to build a succession plan for key leadership roles. Without this type of planning, a board of directors will take longer to fill the organizational gaps and the actual job vacancy. If your board is currently facing this situation, then here are some tips from the PMA team.

Internally – move quickly. When an Executive Director leaves an organization, it is critical that the board leadership meet soon after the announcement to make time-sensitive decisions around interim leadership, internal communications and a search timeline. Once the organization’s staff learns of the Executive Director news, they will need reassurance and guidance in moving forward. It is the board’s responsibility to provide these things to staff in a transition, as the departing Executive Director will be focused on wrapping up his or her responsibilities. Based on PMA experience, a strong board is able to move swiftly in communicating needed information to staff and deciding about next steps for the job vacancy.

Externally – communicate with confidence. While it is important to keep an organization’s staff focused and informed, the board may need more time to draft communications for clients, partners and donors. Consider the following: What is the assumed reaction of your clients, partners and donors? What questions will be most important to them? What key messages do you want them to hear from your organization in this transition? Take the time to build a timeline for communications and assign a responsible person to implement it. While news of a departing Executive Director may bring questions, it is still an unexpected opportunity for the board to share the mission and accomplishments of the organization with clients, partners and donors. PMA recommends taking advantage of it.

Take time to reassess. From the PMA perspective, some Executive Directors are chosen for their unique skill set rather than their experience. If your organization has been constructed around the Executive Director’s special skills or personality, then this transition is an appropriate time to reevaluate the Executive Director job description and even the leadership structure of the organization. A facilitated brainstorming session with the board or key members of the board may provide new insights into undocumented leadership and organizational needs.

Consider an outside perspective. Most boards form a search committee for an Executive Director vacancy. A search committee alleviates the board from using all its time to find a new Executive Director. When selecting search committee members, consider board members with experience in human resources and/or invested interest in the organization’s wellbeing (Ex. Board president, advancement committee chair, etc.). It is also important to contemplate the use of an executive search firm such as PMA. Outside counsel can maximize your search committee’s time and efforts, plus an executive search firm can bring a more diverse and broader candidate slate to the organization. From PMA’s experience with executive search, a strongly vetted candidate is more likely to stay with an organization for a long period of time and be a better fit with the board.

Rather than panicking when an Executive Director decides to leave, PMA urges boards to use this fresh opportunity to reassess the organization and communicate effectively with clients, partners and donors. At PMA, we have robust experience with these situations and bring a potent candidate slate to each and every search. With over 80 clients served throughout the Southeast region, PMA is ready and able to help your organization through an executive transition.

If you are interested in learning more about our search services, then contact David Ibsen at di@pattonmcdowell.com

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Categories: Leadership & Careers

Author:pattonmcdowell

Patton McDowell & Associates is a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits and charitable foundations achieve their goals. We maximize an organization’s resources and help it achieve strategic efficiency.

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