Replacing an executive director is very hard to do. It can be traumatizing to the board, the staff and the community being served. But sometimes it needs to be done and doing it right is critical to the overall health of your organization. I write this post from the perspective of someone who has replaced an ED while serving as the chair, twice.
Instead of walking you through the specifics of each experience I want to offer up lessons learned and hopefully pass along some wisdom that could serve you should the situation arise at your nonprofit.
1. Get in front of it
If you sense that it is time for your ED to move along start the conversation with them as soon as possible. I suggest you frame it as a career conversation. Where do they want to be in 3-5 years? Then work backwards. In most cases the reality will be that they want to grow in ways the organization can’t support. Don’t inject that into this initial conversation. Help them see it for themselves. The ideal outcome is that they decide to leave.
2. Have a real executive committee
I know many smaller boards don’t have an executive committee established. Or it tends to be whomever has been on the board the longest. But that can really backfire when you are dealing with an ED that needs to go. Those “old timers” might be loyal to the ED and have trouble seeing the need to make a change. Or they just don’t feel comfortable confronting them. A real executive committee has people on it that are willing to look at reality and make hard decisions. Get this in place first. Otherwise you won’t have a team to work with.
3. Let the outgoing Executive Director lead
I know, this seems counterintuitive but if you can frame this as something they are doing- moving on to new opportunities- and let them control the message (as much as makes sense) then you reduce the overall trauma and politics. Flip the script and celebrate the work that ED has done for the organization. Honor them. Even if things got ugly at certain points along the way, focus on what went well. If possible, have them interview candidates to replace them. That may seem rough on the outgoing ED but in my experience it can be empowering and their insights are valuable.
4. Be human
This is just something to keep in mind throughout the process. If you get emotional and say things you don’t mean, apologize. If someone else does it, forgive them. This is messy work. Stay human, present and understanding.
Jeb is a founder and the CEO of Boardable. Jeb’s interests lie in entrepreneurship, community service, music, and futurism, among other things. Jeb is also the founder of SmallBox, the Speakeasy, and Musical Family Tree.
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