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Leadership Transition Planning

Leadership Transition Planning

By Elsa Ríos

ER: Leadership transition planning (LTP) is the process by which an organization and its stakeholders prepare and manage a change in its leadership. Unlike a traditional executive search process, LTP is much more comprehensive, ensuring that a wide range of stakeholders is engaged and that the organization undergoes a reflection process. If done well, a leadership transition can be inspiring and can create conditions that propel the organization to an even higher level of impact.

Why is this important for social justice organizations now?

ER: Support for leadership transition planning is one of the top requests we receive from organizations. The movement is experiencing a major generational shift right now. We have a significant number of longtime leaders from the ‘60s and ’70s Baby Boomer generation who founded organizations and are retiring all at once. The transition of leadership to the next generation is happening movement-wide and can be an opportunity for growth.

But, at the same time, it is raising a lot of unique questions and challenges for organizations. For example, we see organizations grappling with the dilemma of how to carefully make room for new leadership to step up but still provide space for the outgoing leader — who may have founded the organization and still remains committed to the work — to contribute, feel valued and play a different role.

What is the most common mistake organizations make?

ER: Lack of planning or rushing through the process. A really smooth transition process takes at least 18 months to plan. The best transitions happen when the outgoing ED has planned ahead of time and has given enough notice of his or her departure to allow stakeholders sufficient time to get accustomed to the idea. Also, enough time needs to be given for the organization to develop a transition committee and an effective search process.

How can organizations grow from an LTP?

ER: A leadership transition can strengthen the organization and build leaders across many levels. Transitions can re-energize the boards because members realize it’s a critical moment in their leadership and they are spearheading the process. It can also trigger exciting opportunities to re-evaluate organizational structures and explore different leadership models, such as establishing a co-executive director structure or senior leadership team.

I also recall an organization where everyone involved was fully engaged in the transition process and was completely aligned behind the new ED. Within two years, she nearly doubled the budget, increased the leadership team and launched a robust communications plan to increase the visibility of the organization, which helped expand their influence and prompted major policy shifts. She didn’t do that alone. Everyone supported her and worked together. That is the potential of a well-planned leadership transition – it can truly inspire organizations to even greater heights.