As a growing wave of agency leaders begins to retire, boards need to ask themselves four key questions.
By Jennifer Michael
Ted Blevins has a long history with Lena Pope Home, a private agency in Fort Worth, Texas, that has served children and families since 1930. For a quarter century, Blevins has served as the agency's executive director. The board of directors was understandably disappointed, then, when he announced last year he was retiring.
Fortunately, Blevins gave plenty of notice. His departure wouldn't come in a few months, but a few years, giving the board time to prepare for his successor.
Lena Pope is just one example among the growing ranks of child welfare agencies that are currently, or soon will be, facing a leadership transition as the baby boom generation begins to retire in increasing numbers. A 2006 survey by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services found 75% of nonprofit executive directors do not plan to be in their current jobs in five years, 9% are leaving their jobs annually, and one out of three will be fired or forced out.
But what makes Lena Pope unusual is its foresight. It is more than halfway through an 18-month succession planning process, and Blevins is still hard at work. But too many agencies do no succession planning in preparation for the loss of senior staff until staff are already packing their offices. CompassPoint found only 29% of nonprofit executive directors have discussed succession plans with their boards.
This presents a danger for organizations, says Jeff Bormaster, a CWLA senior consultant who has helped child welfare agencies nationwide conduct leadership succession plans, including Lena Pope Home. He has worked with a number of boards that had little or no notice their executive directors were headed out the door. One executive director's husband was diagnosed with cancer, and she gave her board two weeks notice of her departure. Another CEO died suddenly of a heart attack.
"Agencies are starting to realize they are going to lose their executive directors and senior staff, and they are starting to become more proactive," Bormaster says. "Most of them think, 'Oh it's no big deal,' but if you are going to do a replacement right, then you need to start planning 18 months out."
To avoid panic hiring, Bormaster advises that boards take responsibility for succession planning, and CEOs take responsibility for making sure their boards know to do succession planning.
To begin, a board must ask itself four key questions:
Who Do We Want to Hire?
Agencies need to think about what's critical to their futures. In addition to their succession planning, Lena Pope's board is working on the next phase of the agency's strategic plan so it can share with candidates for Blevins's position the board's and the organization's vision for the future.
"That way," Blevins explains, "[the board] can communicate effectively so they don't end up making a hire who wants to go one way while the board wants to go another way."
When Farrell Cooper announced his retirement as executive director at the Partnership for Families, Children, and Adults in Chattanooga, the agency's board of directors took the opportunity to do some strategic planning. It looked closely at how the agency had changed over the course of Cooper's 13-year tenure and determined more of the leader's time needed to be out in the community, establishing relationships and raising money. The board also developed more of a corporate structure for the agency's leadership, turning the executive director position into a chief executive officer position, and adding a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer (CFO) under the CEO.
The Partnership's board used these factors to frame a clear job description for Cooper's successor, including a percentage breakdown of how the new CEO would be expected to spend his or her time.
"This breakdown of how we expected the CEO to allot time became part of the package received by each candidate, and provided each candidate with a clear understanding of what would be expected," says Mary Grey Moses, the Partnership's former Board Chair. "This document continues to be used by our new CEO as a guide for her leadership and activities and as a measure for assessment."
How Far Do We Want to Look?
Agency boards must decide how expansive their search for a new CEO should be. Are there political or funding reasons to limit the search to within the state? Would a regional or national search produce an equally viable candidate?
"Every board has to decide how important knowledge of the state's systems, politics, and key community persons involved in raising money are, and how much can be learned over time once the new executive comes into the position," Bormaster says.
Frequently in the past, when a leader left an agency, his or her successor was promoted from within the agency. The upside to this approach is the new leader's extensive knowledge of the organization. But promoting from within is becoming an outdated model, Bormaster says. In today's world, most agencies need someone who can raise money, and strong internal program directors or CFOs--the staff often considered to succeed an agency's CEO-- don't always have the necessary skills for raising dollars.
At the Partnership in Chattanooga, the board determined 75% of the new CEO's time needed to be spent out in front in the community, making contacts and fundraising. To find just the right person to fill that role, they took their search both locally and nationally and wound up hiring Sandra Hollett, the former Executive Director of Catholic Social Services in Atlanta. "We made a great selection," Moses says. "Sandra is an excellent CEO whose strengths match the needs of the Partnership."
Blevins can attest to his job shifting more toward fundraising over his 25 years with Lena Pope Home. He estimates about 60% of his time is now spent on fundraising, not only for Lena Pope Home, but also for the Lena Pope Home Foundation, a separate 501(c)3. So his successor's ability to do the same, plus build relationships within the Dallas-Fort Worth community and statewide, while also having a strong understanding of the agency's programs and the ability to work internally with staff, are key factors Lena Pope's board is considering for his replacement.
"Clearly, this organization will do a national search," Blevins says. "If they do an extensive search, the board and the community can feel satisfied that every possibility was looked at. Then whoever comes into that position has a stronger place of endorsement, not only by the board, but also the community."
What Process Do We Use?
"The ideal hiring process takes 12 months minimum," Bormaster says. "Most agencies wait until the person is gone and say, 'Oops, what do we do now?' Succession planning involves working through these questions beforehand so you know what you're going to do and you've even done some of the front-end work."
The model succession process Bormaster gives agency boards involves 10 steps:
Who Will Lead the Process?
- The board conducts general input meetings with staff, and individual meetings with senior managers.
- The board develops a strategic plan to share with applicants so applicants can explain how they would help the agency get where it wants to go, rather then waiting for a newly hired CEO to tell the agency where it needs to go.
- The board search committee meets to review staff input, draft a job description and job announcement, draft the screening process, and discuss the proposed salary.
- The full board further develops informational materials, including the job announcement and description.
- The board approves a salary range, job description, job announcement, advertising plan, budget, and screening process.
- The board announces the position. The agency responds to each applicant immediately, with an information packet about the agency, the agency's strategic plan, and a hiring timeline, as well as a written questionnaire submitted electronically within seven days.
- The search committee selects applicants from the pool and conducts phone interviews.
- The search committee reviews applicants, makes recommendations, and approves an interview plan and final schedule.
- The search committee conducts face-to-face interviews.
- The board and the agency's senior leadership team interview final applicants.
After answering the first three questions, an agency should better understand how much help it will need to conduct a succession plan. "The board has to decide how much they are willing to do and how much they want someone to do for them," Bormaster says.
A board must consider whether to do the search on its own, hire a facilitator consultant, or use a search firm. Boards that choose internal or local candidates usually don't need the help of a consultant or search firm, Bormaster says. For broader searches, however, a consultant can work with a board to make the first cut of candidates. A search firm will do most of the searching for the board and choose the most viable candidates. The more help a board decides it wants, the greater the cost will be.
The Partnership in Tennessee decided it wanted to be very involved in the search process, but it also wanted to take advantage of CWLA's consultant services and Bormaster's help.
"We wanted to be very hands-on in the second part of the process, we wanted somebody who really understood the whole nature of nonprofits, and we needed to do it on a budget," Moses recalls. "We had a board that was willing to put in the time necessary to do it this way."
The Partnership formed a search committee of six board members, including the board president, vice president, past president, and treasurer. Bormaster guided the committee through the search process and conducted the initial screening of candidates, eventually presenting the search committee with 30 candidates from the initial pool of 125, and guiding the committee through telephone and onsite interviews of the final candidates.
After Blevins announced his retirement, Lena Pope's board formed three committees--a succession planning committee, a search committee, and a support committee. In addition to the search committee's work, Blevins says his board will likely use a search firm to expand the search outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area for "fresh ideas and different candidates." After finding the new executive, the support committee will work to help integrate him or her into the agency and the community.
Smooth Sailing from Here
"You have to go into this knowing you have a tough job ahead of you," Moses says of a board's responsibilities once a leader announces his or her departure. The search committee at the Partnership put in well over 200 hours of meetings and preparation time to find the right leader for its agency.
But if succession planning is done right, the hiring process can end up being seamless.
"Having a precise, well thought-out, and unanimously accepted job description was the most important step we took to ensure a smooth and successful search," Moses says. "If this process is done correctly, when you get to that point [of choosing a candidate], and you have the trust of the full board, and you've been reporting to them and they understand what is going on, they are going to be excited about your choice. That was the way it worked for us. They understood [the search committee's] reasoning behind why we had selected this person, and they found the candidate to be very acceptable."
Blevins predicts the hiring process for his replacement will go smoothly also, given the generous advance notice he gave his board about his retirement. He plans to retire on the last day of 2009, but he may leave earlier if the board brings in someone before then, in which case Blevins says he will likely stay on as consultant to the new leader, depending on his or her skill level and background.
But once Lena Pope Home's new leader is well established and ready to get to work, Blevins says, "I plan on having some fun. I've worked a long time."
Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.
In the January/February issue of Children's Voice, read more about how agencies are developing internal training programs to build a larger candidate pool from which to recruit future agency leaders.
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