After reading last week in the Talbot Spy the letter from the president of The Country School’s board of trustees regarding the resignation of the new head after only a year in the job, I wondered again about the tortuous succession following the retirement of a head who had served 30 years.
Succeeding a founder of a nonprofit or someone who led a school for decades is disturbingly fraught. It often leads to failure. It throws the school or nonprofit into tumultuous chaos, one often permeated by ill will, if not misfortune for the person recruited to stay for at least five years.
The carefully written letter sent by John Hochmeyer points to the ever-present specter of following a “legend” (my term for actual founders or long-time executives) and the documented record of one disappointing personnel mishap after another. This comes after an extensive search, possibly directed by a third-party consultant.
I’ve observed this scenario so often that I wonder about the root causes of this disruption.
Organizational resistance to change seems a reasonable conclusion. Board members, parents, faculty and donors seek to find a person who will change what they believe the long-term school head or nonprofit CEO did poorly, or just not so well. The constant drumbeat is pervasive: we must find someone whose skills supposedly are better suited for the future.
Then the new head or CEO institutes changes that he or she thought were necessary—and highlighted during the search. Guess what? The constituents rebel against the changes and withdraw support. Board members then enable the new executive to resign.
For legal reasons, a letter such as the one thoughtfully written by Hochmeyer does not delve into the real reasons for the severance of an embryonic relationship. It thanks the person and wishes him well. It offers standard verbiage to soft-pedal a dissonant conclusion to yet another disappointing succession in the nonprofit world.
For those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty, the wall of silence is impenetrable. One tries to read between the lines to determine what went wrong. A few hints may materialize.
My interest is not juicy gossip or finger-pointing. I want to know how to strengthen organizations through thoughtful and successful transitions. Maybe the human condition is too strong a force to prevent failure in some successions.
Maybe the successor is a dud, ill-suited for a position despite extensive and well-meaning vetting. Resumes do not tell the whole story, nor are interviews always a good barometer of success.
Maybe the organization is simply not ready for change. It may think it is, but the reality may be different. The “legend” could be trusted. The newbie lacks the credibility built over years of service and familiarity with the internal and external communities.
Perhaps the search is focused more on personality and its link to the organization’s culture, when it should concentrate on one thing and only one thing: the mission.
That’s right. What is the primary mission, and who best can fulfill it? Putting aside natural flaws, the founder or long-term executive obviously had terrific strengths and attributes that propelled the organization to great achievements. His or her successor should be equally talented, with some additional skills, if possible.
I am not suggesting a clone.
I’ve heard some involved in a search say, “We can’t afford to fail.” Now that statement implies that the organization is in a fragile state, and failure could be a death blow. And yet, failure repeatedly occurs. Turmoil results.
A friend recently suggested that an organization long led by a “founder” or long-term CEO should seek an interim executive to enable all the stakeholders to escape the pressure of immediacy and focus on an orderly transition. In addition, engaged constituents can use the time to learn to trust someone other than the known commodity in preparation for a hopefully permanent appointment.
In many organizations, micro-management by the long-serving CEO or head is so rampant that staff is wary of making any decision without checking with the top person for fear of being second-guessed or criticized.
The interim approach, often used in Episcopal churches, provides breathing space. The interim might be able to guide a thoughtful and successful search or “call.” The parishioners and vestry have time to conduct a “discernment” process, examining the church and its needs.
My concern is how long do you prolong the process. I worry about a cessation of momentum. I wonder if donors will look elsewhere to engage in philanthropy.
I do not pretend to know how to bottle the magic potion for success. I do know, however, that a failed succession is injurious, though not fatal to the health of a nonprofit. In the case of a school, students, faculty, parents and reputation suffer the consequences.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.