If you had asked me five years ago, who I thought would succeed us as the LST Executive Director, I would have had a name and all the reasons why my choice was the only choice! Privately, I would tell board members, lobbying in a preemptive way to ensure that my choice was their choice.
But I had made a big mistake. My big mistake was that my One-and-Only-Possible-Choice absolutely did not want to do the job!
I’ve thought a lot about my flawed choice and have decided that asking the current Executive Director to find his/her own successor is not a very good idea. If the ED is a founding director, it may be even worse, and certainly more problematic.
First, why should not the Founding director name his/her own successor? After all, who would know better about what skill sets or gifts are needed than the Founder? Allow me to answer this rhetorical question with several more:
- Can Founders choose someone different in skill sets from themselves?
- Can they be objective enough to bring in someone who has the gifts that they themselves did not have?
- Can they see beyond their own circle of relatives/acquaintances/associates to evaluate fairly someone who has not been intimately associated with the organization?
- And what does it do to their legacy, if their chosen successor does not prove to be a good choice—so does that risk push Founders to safe choices rather than best choices?
- What if the Founder consciously or unconsciously still wants to control the organization? Isn’t this almost a predictable tension at a time of transition? Would that tend to lead toward a choice of someone who can be controlled or overly influenced by the Founder?
These questions are hard for Founders to answer—which is why I would encourage you to opt for strong board involvement in choosing a successor!
What if the board does not want to be involved, but prefers that the Founder/Executive Director do the selection? Then you have the wrong board! Regardless of who started has led it for years, the board of directors has the responsibility for the sustainability of the organization.
Your board should lead in choosing the successor for a Founder/Executive Director for the following reasons:
- The members of the board are legally responsible for the actions of Executive Director.
- A multi-member board has the advantage of diverse input, out-of-the-box thinking, regional perspectives, and often even generational insights, all of which should engender better candidates.
- Board members, by the fact of sheer number, have wider circles than a single Founder. If the board searches among their acquaintances, a larger number of good prospects is more likely.
- A public announcement of an open position by the Board of Directors gives the organization more legitimacy than an appeal by a Founder/Executive Director. It also makes the process seem more objective.
- The Board of Directors is almost always the employer of the Executive Director, so giving the Board the responsibility for selection of the new ED builds an appropriate relationship between the employer and employee from the very beginning. This is much different than if the new ED has been selected and “hired” by the outgoing Executive/Founder.
The LST board went through a bit of transition turmoil after Sherrylee and I gave notice of our retirement. Let me start by saying that the main problem was not the board members themselves, but probably the constitution of the board at the time. We were seven members; Sherrylee and I were two of those seven. That left only five to work through the transition. As it turned out, one of the board members was to becoming one of the declared candidates interested in the Executive Director’s position. What we were left with after Sherrylee and I and this other board member recused ourselves was only four “objective” members.
We made the decision to divide into two working groups and to invite some of our non-board member supporters to join us in these work groups in order to expand the number of people in the process as well as to provide a wider perspective. One work group was to search for the successor; the other work group was to manage the transition of the Founders (Sherrylee and me). That seemed like a very productive arrangement, but actually things got off track pretty quickly.
I’ll explain what happened in the next post.