Posted by Alan Harrison on Monday, March 12, 2012 Under: Strategic Planning
How often have we seen this happen?
Jack – an artistic, managing, or executive director – announces that he is leaving the company. Jack is a founding director, or at least a director who has held the position for many years and the organization has been built around his tastes, his passion, and his contacts. The Board chair pales at first, but is made to feel better when Jack gives so much notice as to be able to recruit a successor. Jack is central to the recruitment, offering selflessly to winnow the field. Jack has always thought that Jill might be a good choice, and the board goes along with his recommendation. Jill arrives. Jill is happy. Jack is happy.
There is much celebration as the new director takes the predecessor’s job, chair, desk, office, and responsibilities. Jill’s background and contacts are similar to Jack’s. Jill is respected highly by Jack and, by extension, the search committee. The search committee is happy. The search firm in Connecticut that was paid $15K to conduct the search is happy, because they asked Jack who they should call and when Jack suggested Jill and the board agreed, they did so. The arts organization, for which this has been a harrowing period filled with uncertainty, rumor, and something of a death march, is saved. The employees are happy. And the merry-go-round continues blissfully.
Except for the tiny, niggling problem of Jill’s own talents and personality. Jill is not Jack, no matter how much influence Jack had in hiring her, and no matter how available Jack has made himself to Jill. Jill, for no other reason than she is a different person than Jack, has her own agenda. It is not an evil agenda – in fact, it’s pretty exciting – but it is unfamiliar and untested. Even though Jill has done a good job at her previous position, it was not at this organization in this city at this time. Jill starts to get frustrated when she ultimately discovers that, regardless of the rhetoric thrown her way by the board chair, supporters, staff, and artists – and by her partner in the organization, if there is a two-headed directorship – she is expected to continue Jack’s work and have Jack’s results.
The work suffers an identity crisis as Jill discovers that not only has she been enlisted to follow Jack’s path, but that there’s a mission to the organization that is so open to interpretation as to mean nothing at all. It is some version of “we do good work, so you should support us,” but more eloquently written with much obfuscation involved. Mentions of “lifelong learning” or “the celebration of the spoken word” or “education and engagement” are simply ornamental filigree to a mission that, when broken down to its most undividable form, holds no opinion or power.
But Jill soldiers on. After a year, during which time the organization has taken a financial bath because it had been branded not by its own successful mission but by Jack’s success, Jill is unhappy. Board members resign. Others are tossed off. The Board is unhappy. The employees, half of which have taken other jobs, are unhappy. The work is unexpected, ambitious, and only liked by new audiences unfamiliar with Jack’s work. However, the longtime season ticket holders are unhappy and drop their subscriptions.
After a second year, Jill is more unhappy. She realizes now that she’s moved across the country to take a position that was not hers, but Jack’s. Jack offers little advice because he’s entrenched in his own career. Jill keeps an apartment in New York, where she lived before she took the new position. She is so confused and embittered that she starts to absent herself from all but the most critical company functions. She distances herself from the staff except for the ones that came on after her arrival. The board chair changes. The new chair is looking for more responsibility toward the finances after two bad years.
Jill announces her resignation. It’s a toss-up as to the reality – maybe she resigned, maybe she was asked to resign. In any case, she is not given the lengthy period of time to recruit a successor. She’s given the minimum. She is deemed a failure and scurries back to New York where her base of personal support exists and she recovers.
The company, now reeling, makes another search and hires Fred – who is neither Jack nor Jill – and now collectively comes to the public with hat in hand, attempting to repair relationships with all stakeholders – audiences, board members, volunteers, staff, government funders, foundations, individual donors, corporations, and the media – while not admitting that the fundamental issue is not the leader but the organization itself and its lack of identity. And a larger problem is that the leaders of the organization have not learned anything from the process, which means that Fred’s fate may well end up just like Jill’s, which means that the vicious cycle continues until someone turns it around.
Or until the place shuts down.
Whichever comes first.
What are the broken issues here? Whose fault is it? And why didn’t the board, the staff, Jack, and Jill know that this was a desperately poor succession strategy?
Jack, after all, had done his homework on succession strategies and Jill was always in the back of his mind for this particular purpose. Did he tell anyone? Did he tell Jill? Was there a documentation of this? And finally, is it at all important for an outgoing director to be involved at all in the choice of his successor?
First of all, succession planning is not necessarily a permanent option. In fact, it works best if there are several people brought into the process and the absence of the director is either temporary (for example, a sabbatical), emergency, or when bad behavior requires that the director be removed immediately. The plans should be documented in the company’s strategic plan, allowing for duplication of responsibilities in order to bring some talent to the organization’s depth chart. Ideally, the depth chart should be in-house and temporary.
In this case, however, there was no emergency and Jack gave plenty of notice. And all the bad things happened rather predictably. Certainly, this is a worst-case scenario, but a scenario that within the last ten years played out at a once-prominent arts organization in the United States.
Knowing all these issues, the board could have searched for an interim director. Why? Because an interim solution is one that provides for the present while the governing body retreats to seek a long-term solution.
Yes, I can hear you through the internet. “Why do an executive search twice?” you’re asking. Isn’t it twice the work to hire an interim leader and then hire a permanent one? Won’t it take forever?
Doing a search for an interim director does not preclude a search for a permanent director. Interims do not necessarily want to be a permanent director of that organization. Boards and staffs often look at an interim director fish-eyed when that information arises; there is an acceptable amount of mistrust when someone says that they simply don’t want to work there full time. Still, if the goal is to provide for the now while the company prepares for the future, intentional interim leadership is a good plan.
Bringing in an Interim leader after a quick shakeup, however, is not a good idea. It is an easy idea – often a board member believes that he or she can handle the day-to-day leadership responsibilities, and a board chair is almost always looking for an easy solution – but it is not a good idea. In those cases, if leadership has not already been documented by a succession plan, or if the succession plan has gone awry because the successor moved on to another organization, then a better path would be to take the time to do an active search for an interim leader from outside the organization while the difficult job of picking up the pieces takes place.
In the scenario, what if, after Jack’s revelation to the board that he was resigning, the board had decided to perform a search for an interim director. Let’s say that they decided that Jill would be an excellent choice. If Jill wanted more, she could certainly throw her hat into the ring for the permanent job, but there would be no expectation of that. Jill could keep her apartment in New York without the idea that she was compelled to move her family to the new city. There would be no expectation from the board, staff, community, and other stakeholders that Jill would be leading the company for an undetermined period. If things went as sour as they did in the scenario, she would simply finish out her year and return, having completed the job she was asked to do. The company would have gone through a serious review of mission and policies. The board would have hired a new permanent director, Fred, by then, with the knowledge that Fred’s company would be Fred’s legacy. And there would be another series of strategic planning sessions immediately after Fred’s arrival, with his unique vision, strategy, and description of success folded into the company.
Every leader’s legacy ends the day the leader leaves the company. The new leader must not simply be given the reins; instead, the new leader must provide a new method of transportation, a new way of leading an organization’s success story. In the interim version of the scenario, where the board has made the good decision to intentionally not hire the first best person that came along, the company is given the best chance to succeed.
Another important point, too often ignored (which is why it's in bold and underlined): It is never a good idea to have the outgoing director have a say on his or her permanent successor. No matter who the outgoing director is or how amicable the separation is. Never. Never. Never.
For the most part, unfortunately, most companies still seek permanent replacements immediately. If your company is undergoing a leadership change, you should probably call in a consultant immediately (yes, I do that -- call me at 206.533.0242, or you can click here to send me an email) who can walk you through a successful succession process.
Oh, and one last thing. I’ve often thought it might be an interesting idea to take potential permanent leaders into a strategic planning process. Not all candidates simultaneously, of course, just in sections. Their actions and reactions during the process may help, in real time, to determine their fit in the organization. Just a thought. What do you think?
In : Strategic Planning
Tags: nonprofit interim leadership "executive director" "managing director" "artistic director" strategy "strategic planning" theatre theater arts not-for-profit consulting