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Leadership Transition: The Board’s Perspective

Ryan Stephens

Director, Strategic Communications

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 3, we sat down with ECVO Board Chair Barbara Burton to learn more about what the board learned through the process.

Leadership transition isn’t easy. In the non-profit realm, it means a massive amount of coordination and significant extra work for your board. Board members must flex their teamwork muscles in ways that are seldom experienced in their typical governance capacity. But as with all complex challenges, there’s a lot a board can do to minimize stress and maximize success.  

When it came to ECVO’s recent leadership transition, Board Chair Barbara Burton says the first major task is establishing clarity on what you seek. 

“We actually didn’t have a job description,” Burton says. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t one in place. So that’s something that we would certainly recommend that organizations do, is to have a clear job description that outlines the functions, the duties of the role, along with the requirements. 

For best results, these requirements should include not only the technical qualifications (i.e. the hard skills) but also the soft skills, or behavioural competencies. Crucially, organizations should recognize that they’re not necessarily looking to replace like for like; they should really cast their eyes towards the future, and pin down what hard and soft skills they feel will lead to future success.

In crafting a new job description, the board also recognized the importance of seeking input—not only from the members of the board, but also from the organization’s staff. This helps build a job description that provides clarity on the role of the board versus the role of the Executive Director/CEO and can help establish boundaries between governance and operations, important factors in achieving success. 

Help From Inside & Outside

Next, the board turned to outlining roles and responsibilities among its members, which is vital for establishing clear lines of communication through the process. 

ECVO’s board has a standing governance committee, which is comprised of the Vice Chair and two or three other members, who looks at policy and planning for board meetings. For the transition process, the committee created a new Search & Transition subcommittee that was primarily involved in conducting interviews, overseeing the process, and reporting regularly to the board. From there, the board interviewed shortlisted candidates and ultimately made the final selection decision. 

“Organizations should recognize that they’re not necessarily looking to replace like for like; they should really cast their eyes towards the future, and pin down what hard and soft skills they feel will lead to future success.

ECVO had the privilege of hiring a recruitment firm for our transition process. Burton found this to be a significant benefit, however she notes that it’s a luxury not all organizations can access. 

“While recognizing that search firms add cost to the process, they also add considerable value,” Burton says. Where organizations undertaking a search on their own would be limited to public postings and advertisements, search firms provide an added service called ‘direct sourcing’, where they reach out directly to potential fits through networks and relationships they have built up over time.

Recruitment firms also often come with some form of results guarantee. Should a successful candidate prove to be a poor fit after the first year, for example, search firms will typically undertake the process again for no added cost.

Tools of the Trade

Working alongside a recruitment firm exposed ECVO to new approaches for the process, including unique tools that help zero in on the important qualities of a leader. 

“I have a background in human resources, and I was even surprised at the advancements now in tools available to support the recruitment process,” Burton says. “In our case, we had a tool from our search firm called the Harrison Assessment, and I think it this was an ‘a-ha’ for me because, while it’s still not making recruitment a science—it’s more of an art—it’s another tool that is available to provide insights and an ability to measure suitability factors that are required for the job.”  

Perhaps the most valuable—and often overlooked—tool that an organization can bring to a transition process is a succession plan. While some organizations have a formal policy on succession planning, the ECVO did not. However, as Burton notes, effective leaders tend to do this naturally. “This is what our former Executive Director did,” Burton notes. “He did identify a high potential candidate internally, and there was mentoring and development that was provided along the way.”  

“At the end of the day, it’s not the outgoing Executive Director who gets to choose their successor. It’s the board that has to make the call, in terms of who is the most suitable person going forward. But having one or more high potential candidates internally makes a lot of sense. More often than not internal candidates are successful in their role. 

Whether it’s an internal or external candidate, the transition process once the person is in the role is critical, Burton says. In ECVO’s case, the board asked shortlisted candidates to provide a 100-day plan for the role, which then became a roadmap of sorts for the successful candidate and provided initial benchmarks against which the board could measure success. 

Leadership transition is a challenging topic for non-profits to acknowledge and understand. ECVO certainly learned a tremendous amount through our own transition, and we hope what we’ve learned can be of use to other organizations in the non-profit communityAs many leaders in Edmonton’s non-profit sector age towards retirement, we’ll soon see significant turnover throughout the sector. The more organizations can be transparent with their process, the more everybody has to gain.  

We hope you enjoyed Part 3 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