10 Ways Boards Screw Up Leadership Transitions

by Joan Garry

I spoke to a board chair once who oversaw a search for a new E.D. when the current one left after a strong tenure. The hire was kind of a disaster….

There are two things I want you to keep in your head as you read this.

  1. Great boards often screw up leadership transitions.
  2. Mediocre boards always do.

I spoke to a board chair once who oversaw a search for a new Executive Director when the current staff leader left after a long and strong tenure. The person they hired was kind of a disaster.

I’m being kind.

Now, the board chair was actually terrific. I asked him to reflect. “Did you hire the best candidate?”

“Oh yes,” he replied. Then he paused. “But it was a lousy candidate pool and I think we all knew it.”

One of my biggest motivations to advocate for strong boards rests right here. The single most important job a board has is to hire or fire and THEN hire a new Executive Director. At the least, a great board stands a fighting chance of getting it right.

First, I want to talk about why this is so important and then I will offer you my top 10 ways board members can screw up an E.D. search or other leadership transitions.


“In the 1970s, a huge, new group of workers entered the workforce. These idealistic world-changers often had nonprofit intentions. Over the next four decades, the number of nonprofit organizations grew from 250,000 to 1.5 million (Hall, 2006; Salamon, 2012). This enormous generation of 75 million people came of age at a time when social justice issues came to the fore and hundreds of thousands of nonprofits were born to address those myriad concerns… Now those same purpose-driven people are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day.”

This is a quote from the a 2018 report by the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management. It’s a very good read about succession planning and I had to laugh when I finished. I needed a Bayer (aspirin) as soon as I read it.

Our sector is so unprepared for the flight of retiring boomers. And as an aside, the headache inducing report above also calls out the sector for a long list of things – from poor succession planning to retirement plans to boards who hang on to staff leaders who have (their words) “lost their fastballs.”

Boards should be well informed on the topic of leadership transitions and how their organization should be structured and the policies and procedures needed to retain, evaluate, and grow and develop talent. This would make for a fantastic discussion at a board retreat. It is universally known as “What If Joan Gets Hit By A Bus.”

Boards go into executive sessions and spend about 30-40 minutes rambling about this and then on they go to the next topic. For those boards out there who take succession seriously, I do apologize for the generalizing.

Without any further ado, here are ten ways boards screw up leadership transitions. If you think I am referencing your organization, trust me when I say that I have seen each of these ten screw dozens of times. It’s exactly why I am writing this post.

If anything you read today helps you avoid one of these way-too-common mistakes, it’s been a good day at the office for me.

Spoiler alert: This may be the snarkiest post I have written in a very long time. Why? Because I have seen such important organizations screw up leadership transitions and searches and it just doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time for some tough love.


The following are in no particular order. They are all big and they are all common.

1)    Take a really long time to create the job description for the Messiah.

Get a committee together that’s big enough to be too big. Take a long time to find the original job description (if you can) and edit it to death. Circulate many drafts and add everything you can. Be sure it is comprehensive so that no living being with the exception of the Messiah will have the requisite skills and attributes (and the Messiah is not likely to take the job – being the Messiah is already a big job). Bottom line: Craft a job description to find someone who probably doesn’t exist and waste at least 3 months of precious search time doing it. Oh, and wait until you are already in a leadership transition to do it.

2)    Put the current Executive Director on the search committee.

Now of course if you have fired the E.D., this is not a choice you will make. But a longstanding and beloved E.D. can add so much to the process right? Uh – no. Well, let me qualify. Maybe some can but generally what they add is their own opinion. The same opinion that has driven the organization for years. Maybe, just maybe it is time for differing points of view to shine through. And with the staff leader (likely a strong presence in your organization) at the table, all voices will not feel equal. Because they won’t be.

3)    Staff member on the search committee.

The best one to pick is the staff MVP. The one you are desperately afraid you will lose if you make the wrong choice. You’ll want to be sure she’s at the table. Make sure she has a vote in the selection, maybe even a disproportionate one. Because everyone in the real world gets to decide who their boss is. And just to be sure… I’m being sarcastic.

4)    No fundraising experience? You can’t have the job.

Some sarcasm again… Focus only on the professional experience. Don’t look at whether or not this person has the ability to build, cultivate, steward and sustain relationships. Whatever you do, don’t ask this person if they still have friends from high school. Avoid attributes like passion and eloquence and focus on whether or not they have previously secured a six figure gift.

5)    Put a board member in charge of the organization during the transition.

Here’s one I like a lot and it’s a surefire way to wreak total havoc with staff during a transition (as if there isn’t already tumult). If you want to ensure a complete catastrophe, don’t ask this board member to step off the board during the transition. Be sure they wear both hats. You’ll want it to all be really confusing. If you don’t go this route, put two staff members in charge so that you don’t get either of them upset. And then let them kinda duke it out.

6)    Hire someone who is completely different from the E.D. you had.

Another screw-up? Don’t ever hire someone who is a lot like your previous successful E.D. I hear this one all the time. We really need someone with a different background. Let’s say your last E.D. was a rock star. You want to work really hard to avoid the inevitable comparisons. Assume the person with a similar background will not be able to make her/his own mark.

7)    Select from a mediocre candidate pool.

This is perhaps the most common screw up. After all, searches during leadership transitions are time consuming and board members are busy. It’s true whether you hire a firm or handle this work on your own. You interview the final three candidates. It’s taken a long time. Thanks to other choices you all have made already, the organization is reeling. So you have to decide. One person starts to look pretty good compared with the other two. You talk yourself into how good that person could be and go ahead and make the offer. I know I have offered 10 screw-ups, but this one is the most common and the one that will haunt you. Mediocre E.D.s are just that. Mediocre. And they can last a long time because they are hard to fire.

8)    Ignore any possible internal candidates, especially if they seem young.

When you see a resume come in from an internal candidate, just go ahead and assume they are too young or green. Even if the person is more passionate about the organization than anyone you can think of. Even if the person has spoken at a fundraising event and crushed it.  Even if <insert accomplishment here>. Dismiss their lack of prior E.D. experience or their age and just assume that there is someone more seasoned out there.

9)    Involve as many people as possible in the interview process.

Another winning strategy. After you have spent months writing the Messiah job description, say yes to anyone who thinks they would be a great search committee member. I’ve already mentioned the departing E.D. but let me give you a few more examples. Your biggest donor. The organization’s founder. Typically someone who is not exactly so very well poised to imagine a future for the organization that is new, different or innovative.

10)  Set your expectations really really high for the new E.D.

Maybe there is a lot to clean up from an E.D. you fired. Or a retiring E.D. overstayed her welcome. So push your new E.D. really hard. Be really impatient and have them make a lot of change really fast with no plan for how that change should be introduced and managed. And please don’t worry about too much.

BONUS: Do not allocate money for a coach for your new E.D. Especially if you paid for a search firm. They found you the Messiah. Why on earth would they need support to manage a massive change process?

And while you are at it, write a note to Roger Federer and tell him he could make a ton more money if he fired his coach.

OK, now your turn. I bet you can add to this list. Or you could be kinder than I have been today and add some advice that will really help. If you were part of a board that managed leadership transitions successfully and hired a great new leader, please comment below.

The sector needs all the help it can get.

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