challenges in Leadership Transition

In 2011, the Meyer Foundation and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services produced a research report “Daring to Lead” that surveyed 3,000 nonprofit executive directors and revealed a forecast of significant impending workplace transitions, with 67% of executives reporting that they expect to leave their jobs over the next five years.

Today, while we see many leadership transitions occurring among the Baby Boomer population, “what was once characterized as a pipeline problem can now be described as a bottleneck, as many individuals are choosing to work beyond the traditional retirement age due to a variety of reasons, including a prolonged economic recession,” reports the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in “Moving Arts Leadership Forward.”

This reality requires organizations to examine its greatest asset – its people, their roles, and career paths – in strategic and creative ways. Workplaces can expect a robust boomer presence through at least 2034, when the youngest boomers will turn 70. This reality impacts Gen X-ers and Millennials aspiring to executive positions, where the wait time for succession is often longer than they would like.

While there was once a question of whether there were enough capable professionals to succeed an organization, now the challenge is more focused on developing and retaining early- and mid-career professionals in an environment of limited opportunities for formal advancement.

While not alone, nonprofits as a sector have considerable challenges in addressing this leadership reality, as they:

– Tend to be small-to-medium size operations and, as a result, are not likely to have as many resources to address strategy, planning, and leadership development.

– Are often institutions with a culture of group decision making, where business gets done through committees and boards of directors – a process that can create added delays and complexity.

– Can be highly funder-dependent, and any transition – especially with an organization’s top leadership – can threaten these vital relationships and the very future of the organization itself.

– Frequently are lead by an original founder or long-time executive. Over time, the top leader and the organization itself are inextricably connected. When this leader goes away, so could the organization.

– Often do not have sufficient reserves (if any at all) to weather an economic downturn, exposing the organization to significant financial vulnerabilities. Leadership transitions and professional development of its people, if not handled properly, can further intensify this situation.

– Sometimes have boards of directors who are unprepared to handle the transition and select and support new leaders. Despite over a decade of attention to this issue, executives and boards are still reluctant to talk proactively about succession, with just 17% reporting that their organizations had a written succession plan.

We must not overlook these pivotal leadership priorities for the development opportunities that they are. Properly and proactively managed, these changes and transitions provide an organization a period to pause, reflect, regroup, and focus. It’s a unique opportunity to examine strategic direction, priorities, and chart a future course. The key is not merely to endure it, but to emerge stronger and more dynamic from it.


You may be interested in these related blog posts:

Executive Leadership Transition and Organization Preparedness

Succession Planning: Conversation Avoided


brick closeAbout Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.

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