Does the Nonprofit CEO Need to Go?

Does the Nonprofit CEO Need to Go?

By: Eugene Fram

Viewer Favorite– Revised & Updated

Recognizing and acknowledging that the current CEO is no longer helpful to the nonprofit organization is never easy to come by. Beyond malfeasance and under-performance, obvious reasons for initiating such a discussion, there are often other indicators: his/her modest leadership skills, ineffective discussions between the CEO and the board chair, criticism from external stakeholders, overemphasis on tactics unbalanced by a focus on strategies, etc.

Volunteer directors are loathe to be confrontational when a CEO has been marginally satisfactory for a number of years, preferring to avoid the “drama” that inevitably accompanies the “changing of the guard.” Directors know such a change may be confrontational and the action of the majority may even split the board. They also inherently know that a termination will require more board meeting time and negotiations, something that can interfere with job and personal commitments.

Yet this type of change can’t be accomplished in a clear and pristine manner — a textbook change is usually not the case. The board first needs to take three major steps.

Work with the CEO – In the best of all scenarios, the CEO’s contract may be expiring and/or she/h may be ready for a transition. The two parties can then arrive at an amicable agreement and timetable for change. Even in this less painful circumstance, there is the possibility that there may be resistance from some board members and staff. If the best scenario is not realistic, arrangements need to be made for the CEO’s termination, hopefully in a mutually satisfactory process.

Board to have its “boots on the ground” — The board needs to make an initial assessment of the qualities necessary for a successor and then move forward and decide to identify potential candidates internally or start to contact employment sources. This requires the board to have comprehensive knowledge of strengths and weaknesses of all managers now reporting to the CEO. It also assumes that the board, in succession planning, knows the capabilities of all personnel who may become successor candidates.

Board consensus – Volunteer directors, not having a financial stake at risk, may be swayed by a jumble of emotion and loyalties. Even though there is a respectable consensus as the process begins, it is not unusual to have some fallout among the directors who may change their minds prior to taking action. In addition, be prepared with a backup plan to address the outbursts of protest from staff, outside community and possibly industry.

The change at best will be disruptive, but the board must remain resolute, never losing sight of the overall rationale. The CEO position needs to evolve as the board reviews opportunities to grow and increase the level of the organization’s services. If the CEO is a “C” Level player, the board has an obligation to seek a “B” level candidate who will be comfortable with the nonprofit’s expanded scope. And if a strategic goal requires a merger or acquisition along with a mission modification, the board would need an “A” level player. A realistic vision of the organization’s growth direction will dictate the strengths required to effectively recruit a new executive leader.

Calming the waters associated with CEO change:

Keep the board resolute! – As stated earlier, volunteer directors can become emotional and succumb to outside pressures and protest. Be sure that they stay “on message” whether or not the vote was unanimous. Pay special attention to the relatively new board members who may not have internalized the organizational history as deeply as others.

Keep the CEO informed — Once the decision is firmly approved, inform the CEO as soon as possible and in person. Do not notify by letter or email. Be mindful of the contributions he/s has made to the organization and provide reasonable incentives (bonus, references, etc.) to help during the transition. Determine if it is politically and staffing wise to keep the outgoing CEO in a subordinate position, should some specific skills are needed.

Treat outgoing CEO with respect – She/h has made contributions and needs to be credited for them.

Move quickly – Even if the outgoing CEO stays in place for a while or an interim CEO is appointed, set a goal for finding the replacement in a matter of a few months.

Avoid litigation – Legal counsel may be needed to review the termination process to be certain all legal bases are covered.

A change of CEOs is a complex and emotional process. But when the board has identified a significant deficit in the CEO’s intellectual and/or managerial skills that may impede stability and/or further growth, it is of paramount importance that a new CEO be engaged. And it is the right time to make that happen.

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4 comments

  1. I agree with your points regarding changing of the CEO pursuant a Board determination that the performance is not sufficient and effective. I also believe that the steps you outlined in the process are very important. However, I believe that a first step a nonprofit organization is to have a succession plan in place that will the exciting of a CEO due to termination (voluntary or not) or accident. A written succession plan outlines the steps for action after a CEO is no longer in place. A succession plan requires the Board to think ahead of its current situation, because change happens every day, every month and every year, therefore its best to be prepared with a plan. A succession plan does not mean that a Board is trying to get rid of its current CEO, however, it is the Board’s responsibility to prepare for the future of the organization. Board members need to understand that it is their responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the organization and a succession plan gives the organization a plan that will ensure continuity of leadership.

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    1. Heyward: I strongly agree that a detailed succession plan is needed, down to who might be an interim person in the event that the CEO leaves unexpectedly.

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  2. However it is the responsibility of the CEO to develop such a succession/interim plan rather than the Board. The board should be clear about what such a plan needs to account for but not design the specifics as that intrudes the board inappropriately into management.

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    1. I feel that the board has to understand the level of talent on bench to take over on an interim basis or permanently. I encountered such a situation, and the board decided to hire an outside consultant, in the event of an unexpected change. Keep internally track of promotable is a critical board overview responsibility.

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