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Emergency Leadership Change

ECVO recently underwent a leadership transition, with a new Executive Director taking the position at the beginning of 2020. We understand that such an initiative can be a challenging and overwhelming for organizations. In this series, we will explore the ins and outs of leadership transition, sharing some insight from our collaborators and lessons we learned along the way. 

In Part 5, Jane Halford of Halford Consulting walks through the important steps to take to prepare for a sudden change in leadership.

2020 taught all of us important lessons. For your organization, one of those is to better prepared for unexpected absences or departures of your leaders. We all have known people who were quarantined during the pandemic and others who, unfortunately, were ill or passed away during that time. As board members, we always know we should plan for an emergency with our Executive Director or CEO, but are you really ready? Most organizations are not. 

In the summer, I received a call from a small non-profit. Their CEO was healthy and had no plans to leave the organization. The board thought it would be a good time to work with him to plan what they should do if he became unable to work, or if he decided to take a different job. The end result is that the board has a document outlining each necessary step to continue the organization’s operations during an unexpected leadership change. Their plan is to pass this document forward to future board chairs who will always keep it current. Here are highlights taken from this experience for your board to consider in preparing and documenting its emergency plan. 

Immediate Actions

List the key people who may be notified in the event of an unplanned absence or departure of your leader. Include the names and contact information for each member of your board and key staff.  Review the list annually to ensure it is complete. If you want to be proactive, include draft scripts for the board chair to use in an emergency. In developing these scripts, consider what you would find helpful if you had to face that reality.

As board members, we always know we should plan for an emergency with our Executive Director or CEO, but are you really ready? Most organizations are not.

Mission Control

The board’s role when changing the ED or CEO is to be the transition’s mission control.  That means planning the change and overseeing that it stays on track. In an emergency, not all board members will have the time or experience to actively serve in this role. Name a small group of board members to lead through the change. It could be a specific board committee (e.g., Executive, Human Resources), or an ad hoc group. In your emergency plan, list the group’s general responsibilities to support the appointment of an acting or interim leader, search for a permanent replacement, and/or support the transition.

Critical Functions

With your current leader, document the critical functions performed by the ED or CEO. Then, identify other staff members who could perform those responsibilities in an emergency. With this clarified, the board and staff should understand what is necessary if that situation ever occurs. If no staff member can fill the role, the document can identify if the board plans to take on the function themselves or hire and external resource. 

Who can help?

Prepare a list now of the names, contact information, and descriptions of key contacts the board and staff may need who can help in an emergency. Be sure to include the organization’s lawyer, banker, investment advisor, external accountant, IT service provider, and organizations that could assist with the emergency, such as crisis counselling and an executive search firm. During the emergency, the board may choose other advisors, but having a list of suggestions will save time and stress.  

Leader Description

Many organizations only review the ED or CEO’s job description when there is a retirement or resignation. It is recommended that the emergency plan have a copy of the current job description. The board should update the document annually to note any specific skills or experience an interim or new ED/CEO should have if the change were to happen in the year ahead. This list does not affect the expectations for your current leader. Rather, it allows the board to move faster in an emergency to find a temporary or permanent replacement. 

No internal emergency leader?

A small organization may not have any staff member who could step in as interim leader. If this is true for your organization, ensure the emergency plan states how the board will approach that situation. Will a board member be appointed the acting leader? One other option is to keep a list of potential individuals who could be contacted to take on this role if necessary. This may include a retired ED/CEO from another organization, individuals known to take on shortterm leadership contacts, or companies who provide such services. 

Interim leaders are unique

If you appoint a temporary ED/CEO, the board and interim leader have a unique relationship. This situation is truly a partnership. Absolute clarity of the interim leader’s authorities, priorities, and reporting relationship to the board is essential. The board chair should stay in contact with the interim leader at least weekly throughout the emergency situation. 

No time?

After all of this, you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for all of this extra work!” Being focused and efficient with the time you have available is all you can do. Even investing fifteen minutes a week in developing an emergency plan for your ED/CEO will benefit the organization. Until June 30, 2021, ECVO members have free access to Halford Consulting’s Board’s Role in Leadership Transition online course. There are short videos and worksheets made for busy board members. Start on the first video for your fifteen-minute focus this week! ECVO members will find the discount code in their profile on the members portal.

If you have other questions about leadership transitions, please reach out to me at 

Jane Halford is driven to help organizations and leaders achieve their goals. By leveraging her experience as a board director, chartered accountant, regulator, entrepreneur, and her passion for leadership development, Jane brings a breadth of experience to individuals and teams she works with. In her business, Halford Consulting, Jane serves boards and CEOs accelerate the performance and improve the success of their incoming leader. She also speaks and teaches on governance, leadership, and executive transitions.

We hope you enjoyed Part 5 in our Leadership Transition blog series. Don’t forget to catch up with the rest of the series:

Part 1 – Leadership Transition: Start From Where You Are

Part 2 – The Challenges … and Importance of a Good CEO Transition

Part 3 – Leadership Transition: The Board’s Perspective

Part 4 – Leadership Transition: The Candidate’s Perspective

Part 5 – Emergency Leadership Change