Around this time two years ago, tens of thousands of nonprofit leaders across the country were mapping out timelines to their retirement or next adventure - including dozens, at least, in central Indiana. Many had not yet mentioned anything to their boards or other staff leaders. Then the financial crash hit, retirement savings plummeted, and unless a replacement was already hired most leaders put their plans on the shelf to wait for better times.
Staff leaders are thinking retirement again, based on the increase in calls I am getting from board leaders and executive directors to assist with succession planning or these leadership transitions over the next 1-2 years. What has caused the change? The stock market is still far from its 2007 highs but has improved since the scary Spring of 2009. A driven, or tired, leader can only put off their next career, writing their book, or moving to Australia for so long. Add to that one of the toughest environments ever to run a nonprofit organization and it seemed inevitable that we would begin to see some ripples of that wave of retirements that has been forecasted for the past 5 years. Still, in the bigger picture, many questions remain unanswered about how long current executives will want to continue to work and what they will do next.
What is “Retirement”?
In our leadership survey a few years ago, we found a significant number of nonprofit leaders had pushed their thinking of retirement age toward 67 or even 70. What wasn’t as clear was whether they envisioned being in their current role or doing something else. When I started focusing on executive transition work 6-7 years ago, I perceived many of my clients were retiring to golf, friends, family, and perhaps some informal volunteer roles. The leaders I speak with today are more likely to be talking about pursuing one of their other passions or even continuing their life’s work in a new way – seldom does living in an RV or sipping marguerites on a sandy beach come up as more than a vacation.
How Big a Deal Is It When a Long-term Leader Leaves?
The comparison that people seem to resonate with most is to a long-term pastor retiring. Though nonprofit executives haven’t done marriages and funerals, they have been visible, inspiring advocates for a cause or a neighborhood as leaders, mentors, coaches, friends, and very important fund raisers. They have been the face, the identity, and the heart of the organization in the community. There are emotional, operational, and relational components that must be addressed as the board steps back to assess where the organization is, where it is going, and what kind of leader will be needed next. Among the most important is to reassure staff, funders, and donors that everything is on track and well-planned.
Where I do interviews as part of the organizational reflection and assessment process, staff and board members are both anxious about their long-term leader departing and excited about the possibility of having a new leader with fresh vision, intense engagement, and new perspectives.
Balancing the Best for the Organization with the Best for the Individual
On the other side of the discussion, leaders who stay too long can inhibit the ability of an organization to build strong staff and board leadership, adapt to the changing environment, and maximize their impact and contribution to the community. Ironically, the very leadership qualities and characteristics that enabled an organization to survive and grow to a certain point can be the same leadership qualities that limit that organization moving forward. Some people have labeled this common tendency as “Founder’s Syndrome”, applying to both long-term executives and founders.
Truly sharing leadership seems to be the best prescription to combat “Founder’s Syndrome”. A painful, but positive, leadership inflection point happens when the board asserts their role as co-leaders of the organization – insisting on being a real part of defining and quantifying what success means to their organization and holding all parties, including themselves, accountable for moving toward those agreed upon outcomes.
If you are a board or staff leader anticipating a transition, I would be happy to speak with you to discuss the types of support we might provide. Feel free to share this article and the process overview at this link with your leaders http://www.notforprofitnews.com/images/One_Page_ETM_Intro.pdf . Watch for another Leadership Survey this fall as we keep you informed about what we are seeing.