By Chris Gandy
“She lasted 12 weeks!”
The Chair of a mid-sized not for profit was referring to his organisation’s most recent CEO.
The Chair was surprising frank and it was obvious he and his Board had conducted a great deal of soul-searching since the departure of the latest CEO.
“Our new CEO was a great person, but it was clear to both parties, it wasn’t going to work”
So what went wrong?
The Chair’s gave me this response and expressed the hope that other NFP Boards wouldn’t fall into the same trap.
“When we debriefed, the Board concluded that our fundamental error was short-term thinking. As a volunteer board we all have jobs and other commitments. When Jane, our CEO, who had been with us for 11 years, told us she was leaving we went into a bit of a spin. We relied on her heavily and felt there was no one internally who could step into role. She gave us 6 weeks’ notice and we resolved that by hook or by crook we would find and engage a replacement by the time she left.
The timing of Jane’s resignation was critical for us as we were leading up to a tender round which involved a contract that accounted for 70% of our funding. None of us had the time or desire to get involved in the day to day operations, so we put our skates on and had a replacement on-board within the six weeks. What’s more the new person was a great tender writer. At the time we felt pretty smug!
The new person made sure a quality tender submission was presented on-time. but that’s when things started to go wrong. We assumed the new CEO would then focus on leading our team to deliver on the organisation’s vision and mission. But she had little interest in this. She liked doing tenders”.
I asked how this experience had influenced the Board’s thinking about the next CEO.
“Well, quite a lot” the Chair said. “We learnt that we need to find and recruit a CEO who will work with us to create this organisation’s future. And this takes some research and thinking. We need to be reasonably sure of where the organisation is going in the next 3-5 years before we can ask someone to help guide us there. As for the here and now? We have hired an Interim CEO who is keeping our stakeholders engaged while we plan for the future. Which is exactly what we should have done in the first place!”
For a NFP Board the lesson here is obvious:
- Do all you can to resist the temptation to react to what is making you uncomfortable when your CEO says they are leaving.
- Decisions based on fear don’t tend to produce the best long-term outcomes. It is also a pretty poor way to govern.
- Sure a CEO’s departure can be unsettling but in the best interests of your Cause take time give yourselves the opportunity to pursue what is possible.
- There are many options available to help you deal with the today’s problems. Take them, while you focus on tomorrow!
Chris is the founder and a director of Cause & Effective. He guides not for profits through the tricky time of CEO transition by helping them minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities that arise.