Your predecessor is your greatest ally

Two people meeting across a table.

Two people meeting across a table. MIND AND I / Shutterstock

Five years ago, we transitioned executive directors of our organization, INCLUDEnyc, a resource, training and advocacy nonprofit that supports young people with disabilities and their families. It was only the second time in three decades that we had a leadership change, so we didn’t have much experience. The incoming executive director had never been an executive director before and the outgoing executive director followed one of the organization’s founders, which presents its own unique set of challenges.

Today, our organization’s budget and staff have doubled in size, and a key factor to our success has been our ability to work together as current and former executive directors. Many people are surprised to hear this because so often the transition process from one executive director to the next isn’t smooth, and relationships are strained or severed. To be honest, our organization didn’t have a solid succession plan for this transition process. The basic foundation of the plan was that the outgoing executive director was to stay on in the open position of director of programs for three months. So like it or not, any incoming executive director was going to have to work side by side, day by day, with their predecessor. While it wasn’t a fully fleshed out plan, it worked!  

Here are some of the secrets to our success:

Park your ego at the door – both of you

Any new executive director comes in, looks at the organization with fresh eyes and wants to make changes. This is natural and a healthy part of the transition, and probably good for the staff and board, even though that change can spark anxiety. In reality, though, the new executive director knows little about the organization or its operations, or what has been tried in the past. In your first months as executive director, it is important to ask questions and listen, but most importantly, refrain from making quick judgments. Be humble, and appreciate the gems left to you. If you are a first time executive director, the job is harder than you think. You will pick up quickly on organizational issues and see the need for changes – some more urgent than others. It's likely that the former executive director struggled with these issues as well and may have perspectives to help frame your strategy.

Even when the outgoing executive director is leaving by choice, it can be hard to let go. For many, the executive director position is more than a job; it’s an identity. Letting go of the status and authority of the position and making space for new approaches and ideas can be difficult. Outgoing executive directors need to be prepared that a new person will look at the organization critically. It's part of the job. Being honest and forthcoming about past failures as well as successes will help the new executive director make thoughtful decisions and avoid repeating past mistakes. When both parties respect and appreciate the other’s contribution and approach the collaboration with thoughtfulness and tact, it can also help calm staff members’ anxieties through the transition and allow for smoother processes as changes are implemented. 

Value and know your strengths

It is a credit to our board of directors and the outgoing executive director for understanding what the organization needed, and the skills that would be required of the incoming executive director to take the organization to the next level. Organizations have a life cycle, and different skills are needed at the leadership level at each stage of growth. While leadership change is scary and can feel disruptive, in the long term, it is best for the organization if strong leaders with appropriate skills are in place at the right time. Our outgoing executive director took over from a 20-plus-year founder and shored up financials, developed robust programs and created organizational processes. The set of skills required to take the organization to the next level of growth were different, such as creating organizational structures, expanding networks and diversifying fundraising. Being the right person at the right time is key, which means knowing your own strengths and appreciating those others bring to the role.  

For both the incoming and outgoing executive director, the ability to recognize and articulate this transition as a natural and positive part of the organization’s life cycle gives an important message to staff and to funders, who appreciate knowing that the organization is not in crisis, but rather is taking the next step in its evolution as a healthy nonprofit. When the outgoing and incoming executive director communicate the transition in the same way, the message of stability and strategic growth are reinforced. 

Make and keep an ally 

Being a nonprofit executive director is an incredibly challenging and rewarding job. The biggest mistake one can make is trying to do it alone. You must have allies and support to succeed, and there is no better potential ally than the former executive director. They know the issues and players – and your board – better than anyone else.  

For the outgoing executive director, changing roles from boss to adviser may not come naturally. The transition requires a shift in mindset and the emotional intelligence and humility to support rather than lead. Not all outgoing executive directors have the temperament to do this, but for many who have invested years of their life into building an organization, the opportunity to continue to help it flourish is welcomed. If both parties are able and willing, the potential alliance is extremely powerful. 

Ultimately, the secret to our success was that everyone: the board, the outgoing executive director, and the incoming executive director, all understood the strengths and potential growth opportunities for our organization and the skills needed to take it there. With eyes on our mission, we brought all our skills to bear and achieved our goals.