Nonprofit executive search, transition experiences and successes vary

A panel of nonprofit leaders last week shared secrets to successful executive transitions, making it clear that no one formula works for all and that outside guidance is key.

Cincinnati Works’ new CEO and its recently retired longtime CEO along with the current CEO and board chair of Redwood led the discussion. It took place at the Children’s Theater of Cincinnati in front of about 20 nonprofit leaders as part of the executive search firm Gilman Partners’ Nonprofit Succession Planning and Leadership Transition annual symposium. Moderators were Barry Elkus and Michele Plessinger, co-leaders of Gilman’s nonprofit practice.

There were at least a few things the panel members agreed on. Having an organization’s current CEO involved in the successor selection process, at least at the end, is a good idea. And documenting the process is important for all stakeholders – a nonprofit’s staff, board, volunteers and donors. And the process takes time.

“You owe it to yourself to have the current CEO interview the candidates coming in,” said Jeff Hassan, a long-time Redwood volunteer and current board chair. “And if you can get it done in less than a year, I’d be surprised.”

Retired Cincinnati Works CEO Peggy Zink said she didn’t get involved in the selection process until the search committee had narrowed the process to two final candidates. WIth Cincinnati Works for more than half of its 25 years in existence, Zink knew she wanted to retire in May 2022. She began recruiting potential successors to her leadership team several years ago, none who worked out. A public search was launched that led the agency to hire former Cincinnati Public Schools interim superintendent Tianay Amat as the new CEO.

But she’s still helping out one day a week at Amat’s request due to a vacancy in the agency’s top fundraising role. Cincinnati Works’ 50 staff members help 1,200 clients find and keep work, helping to lift those clients out of poverty.

“We had a one-month transition drawn up,” Amat said. “But because of the development role transition, we changed it. The transition plan was really for me. It was clear to the staff that I was CEO. But I wanted Peggy around.”

Tianay Amat

Redwood CEO Sharon Fusco, hired in the middle of the pandemic to begin in December 2020, said she preferred the two week transition with her predecessor. Redwood’s 130 staff members serve 800 people with disabilities.

“I would not have wanted more than two weeks,” she said. “But know that I’m used to seeing my husband’s world of military transition where the new leader is being installed while the old leader is on a plane to his next assignment.”

A key executive at Council on Aging before joining Redwood, Fusco wishes she had spent more time trying to find her successor.

“If I would change anything, it would be that I would have never stopped looking for my successor,” she said. “Succession planning is something a board should be talking about all the time.”

Another nonprofit leader, Kathy List, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters, had planned to be part of the panel but couldn’t due to COVID exposure.  Elkus relayed a story from List about how she has planned for her succession in 2023. List hired a chief development officer in February with the intent that he succeeds her. If all goes according to plan, he will become CEO-elect in January and then transition into the role permanently in six months.

“This became a solution for her that is working,” Elkus said of List’s succession. “Transparency to staff, the board and the candidates was critical.”

In Redwood’s and Cincinnati Works’ transitions, search committees were formed. For Redwood, it was the agency’s executive committee along with a few new voices. Cincinnati Works board chair was transitioning, making the new chair the obvious leader for the search committee. Diversities – age, gender, race and experience on the board – were added to the committee.

In any search, Amat said organizations must be organized to be CEO-friendly. “I was fortunate to find that match,” she said.

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