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2001 Finding Better Ways Conference Presentation Recap

Executive Transitions: Preparing Your Organization for Leadership Change

Leslie Clark Brancato
Clark Brancato & Associates, LLC
Chester, NY

The field of human services is facing a crisis in leadership, as over one-third of its current CEO's prepare to retire within the next five years. Recent studies indicate that new chief executives have a tenure of less than four years before leaving the position, and often the field altogether. Preparing for successful transitions in leadership requires advance planning for succession, sophisticated and thoughtful recruiting strategies and processes, support for the new executive, and attention to developing the next generation of leaders.

Succession Planning

Preparation for passing the torch from one leader to the next, ideally, proceeds the actual departure of an outgoing CEO by many months, if not years, and involves far more than simply deciding who will succeed him/her. The most frequently cited reason for the short tenure of new CEO's is poor Board functioning, primarily the lack of clear roles in relationship to the chief executive. Many Boards do not understand the realities of leading a child welfare agency in today's environment. The Board needs to have a strong understanding and grasp of the agency's current internal status, the external environment and its demands, and the changing and increasingly difficult job of being a CEO. Active involvement in strategic planning, exposure to programs and policy mandates, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities pave the way for a successful transition in leadership.

Some chief executive departures are planned; others are more sudden due to illness, death, termination, or deciding to take another position on relatively short notice. Developing and assuring that a strong management team is in place is another way in which a CEO can ensure the successful continuation of services beyond his or her departure. Providing leadership opportunities and responsibilities to key staff members assures that the corporate knowledge, power, and history is shared, and allows others to step in and lead in an interim time of need. While the Board may ultimately choose an external candidate to replace the outgoing CEO, these experiences prepare staff to compete for other CEO positions outside the agency, and enrich the talent pool to the field of social services.

One of the best gifts an outgoing CEO can leave his or her successor is an honest appraisal of the agency's difficulties, as well as its strengths, and to assure that there are no surprises in store for the new chief executive and the Board. Many new CEO's have had the unfortunate experience of bearing bad news to long-time Board members, who have been in the dark regarding problematic financial, staff, funding or compliance issues.

When possible, advance notice of retirement allows planning for succession in a thoughtful and deliberate way. Potential internal candidates may be identified early, evaluated, and given the opportunity, coaching and resources needed to develop skills necessary for assuming the CEO role. A skilled search consultant who is knowledgeable and familiar with the market and pool of talent in the field, can help the Board assess the internal candidates' qualifications, and determine whether to move forward with a full scale search.

Recruiting Strategies

The first step in recruiting a new CEO is to assure that the Board has clear knowledge of the agency's strengths, challenges and goals. Then they can begin to define the specifications for requirements of the position regarding duties, responsibilities, qualifications, and style. The entire process requires three to six months utilizing a variety of advertising strategies and active outreach to recruit candidates. Passive advertising in newspapers and journals no longer yields a strong pool of potential candidates. Targeted directed mailings, use of Internet sites, and aggressive networking calls are the best bet for finding talent. Increasingly, it is necessary to "sell" the position, presenting it as a unique professional opportunity within a special organization. Seeking and attaining a new CEO is a sensitive and difficult process, which requires mutual assessment of "fit" to assure an ideal and lasting match. A successful search is very time-consuming, labor intensive, and can be a highly-charged political process requiring skilled facilitation from start to completion. Consequently, there has been a dramatic rise in externally managed executive searches in recent years, for chief executives as well as for other senior level leaders. The quest for leadership has become highly competitive and the stakes for the success of an organization equally high.

Support for the New Executive

Once a new CEO has been selected, and an employment agreement has been reached, it is important to assure an "after care" component. Introductions within the community, with funders and key constituencies, help the new executive establish important relationships. Press releases and welcoming events provide public relations opportunities for the agency, as well as creating important rituals of celebration with the new leader and the organizational community. Another important aspect of assuring a positive transition is for the Board and new CEO to establish an evaluation process and the performance criteria on which the executive will be evaluated at the end of the first year.

A New Generation of Leaders

Increasingly it is critical to assure the next generation of leadership within the field and expose them to the experiences, responsibilities and necessary tools for success. Hiring boards expect and demand a new breed of CEO's, who are highly skilled in business management, organizational development, and fundraising. Women and persons of color are breaking the glass ceiling at unprecedented rates. Nontraditional, transformational leaders are replacing traditional hierarchal social service administrators. Candidates, who can demonstrate results and achievement, are able to compete successfully for CEO positions in today's market.

Contact Information

Leslie Clark Brancato, MSSW
Clark Brancato & Associates
45 Brookside Avenue, 17M
Chester, NY 10918
Phone: 845.469.3074
Fax: 845.469.3078

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