Leadership Transition: How to Create Opportunity During THE Most Critical Stage

Leadership transitions create significant risk.

Decreased revenue (both earned and contributed), loss of organizational confidence and momentum, reduced staff engagement and even resignations, are all potential outcomes that organizations face when navigating a change in leadership.

While there are excellent resources available for all stakeholders, including succession planning consultants, search firms and recruiters, and Interim Managers (whether appointed from within, or externally sourced), NONE of these resources guarantee you a smooth and successful transition.

Over the past 13 years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead non-profits through transition as a professional Interim Executive Director/CEO, and as a leadership strategist and coach to Board Presidents, outgoing leaders, Interim leaders, and staff.

I’ve observed patterns, created and tested strategies to move organizations in transition forward and I’ve come to understand that while every scenario and organization certainly has unique circumstances, there are common dynamics that can be anticipated and addressed to ensure a smooth and successful transition.

My experience shows that all of the following are possible during a transition or “interim” period:

  • Increased board engagement, confidence, excitement and effectiveness
  • Increased staff engagement, leadership, creativity, and buy-in
  • Increased Individual donations/contributed revenue
  • Stronger image and visibility within the community

And, because of these possibilities, the “right” search candidates are even more likely to be attracted to the organization due to the “buzz” that’s been created from effectively managing the transition.

While Leadership Transition is a multi-faceted topic, in this article, I focus on the key moment that often comes and goes without recognition or strategy, because t’s in this moment, that organizations either set themselves up for success, or lose momentum and fall into a downward spiral. And, it’s in this moment where I can often provide the most impact to an organization.

Before I share strategies for that moment, let’s first define the VERY DISTINCT STAGES of leadership transition!

What do you think of when thinking of your upcoming transition?

✓ (PREP) We should have a Succession Plan in place

(ANNOUNCE) We’ll need to let people know

(SEARCH) We’ll need to determine how and when to launch a SEARCH

(HIRE) We’ll make a HIRE…and be done!


I invite you to consider these additional stages:

✓ (INTERIM PERIOD) To maximize the opportunity, and minimize some of the risks discussed above, it’s absolutely essential to create a robust plan for the INTERIM PERIOD as part of your strategy to boldly advance your organization during transition. More than simply “handling the day-to-day operations,” this period is ripe with unprecedented opportunities for increased momentum, engagement and revenue generation.

✓ (AFTER THE HIRE) To ensure the highest possible ROI on your new hire, you must take actions to ensure he/she will hit the ground running, is strongly positioned, and ruthlessly supported. In some cases, especially when following a Founder or long-time leader, the transition can take years.

Each one of these distinct stages has specific dynamics that can exist as you, and your internal and external stakeholders respond differently to change and transition.

THE most critical time of any leadership transition it is often the moment between when the transition is first known/conveyed to the Board President and when the first Press Release is issued.

This is the time when you need the most objective and experienced transition support!


WHY? (In a nutshell)

This is the moment when the leadership paradigm shifts from the outgoing leader, to the Board needing to be in the driver’s seat. This is significant, because having the board take charge often appears to be at odds with normal “best practices” and must be done with care, nuance, and with a sound strategy

Top Priorities for the Board

  • A Transition Leadership Team must be assembled, with clearly defined transition roles and responsibilities between the outgoing leader (if that is your scenario) and others.
  • Decision-making protocols must be clarified to keep the organization moving forward and delivering on its mission.
  • Frequent, transparent and strategic communications are key during transition. Closed door meetings, negotiations with legal ramifications, while leadership aims to sort things out will occur. The desire to “wait” on making key announcements or communicating until all is figured out must be addressed.
  • It’s important to remember that Leadership Transitions are part of doing business! Your normal feelings of shame, embarrassment, sadness, even victimhood must be shifted by bringing stakeholders into the journey of transition by thinking of their needs.
  • Stakeholder emotions and other dynamics in this stage will need to be anticipated and addressed effectively:
  • Board members may be anxious, worried, concerned, frustrated, overwhelmed – or they may feel more connected and needed than ever before.
  • Staff who are aware of the transition will experience feelings ranging from anger and abandonment to relief and excitement.
  • Staff who aren’t aware of the transition will likely sense something is going on, and emotions may range from anxiety to disconnectedness; each with unique behaviors and reactions.
  • What about your donors? Ticket buyers? Community partners? Vendors? What do they need to hear? And what do you want them to know about your organization? and THAT question leads to this next point:

While this time does need to be fast-paced, it’s also critical to take a moment to pause, regroup, assess, and go on the offensive – rather than only reacting to deadlines imposed by outside forces. (This may feel very hard to do!)

  • Take the time to bring your team together to think about the future of your organization. Inspire your team to be working towards something, rather than having the leader’s departure dominate the narrative. (Of course, you’re not going to have the time before the Press Release is sent out to do a Strategic Planning process, but make the time to have some deep discussions!)
  • Consider these questions with your team: What does this transition mean for us? What new opportunities will now be possible for increased impact in the community? Why? What is the organization aiming to do and BE in our Next Chapter?
  • I’ve worked with many search committees and often hear “we want a visionary leader” (with the implication that that new person will set the Vision), but WHAT IF the Board and Staff took a minute to figure out what YOU envision? What if you based this vision on the community that you know, on your successes and strengths, and on your clear idea of what you want in terms of impact – for the next 6 months, 12 months, 3 years? Once you’ve established your priorities and prepared, THEN finally it’s time to:
  • Draft an Integrated Transition Timeline, addressing both transitional and operational needs. This will include the creation and implementation of an internal and external communications strategy and will roll-out based upon all you know from the above points.
  • Create an Interim Plan that will ready the organization for the next leader’s arrival. Ready-ness can range from filling staff vacancies, overhauling budgeting and tracking processes, to launching fundraising campaigns, to creating a turnaround; eliminating years of debt and building up reserves.
  • Launch a Search to find the person that has the skills to help you achieve your organization’s vision.

And the “kicker?”

Ideally, ALL this will occur prior to the Press Release going out (and the Press Release should go out as soon as possible, before rumors or leaks occur!)


Leading your organization through a transition requires much more than launching the Search – and can go well beyond the hire.

There are distinct stages and related dynamics that you can anticipate and successfully address every step of the way.

However, THE most critical time of any leadership transition is often the moment before the announcements are made when the Board takes charge and must quickly establish transition leadership and powerful messaging that will ensure a smooth and successful transition.

Your Board, staff and community are counting on you!

To learn more about how I work with organizations in transition, or to schedule a confidential conversation with me about YOUR transition, I invite you to take a look at my website HERE.  I’ll learn more about your specific scenario and help you uncover your best next strategic moves.