Few events in the life of an arts organization are as important, as visible, or as stressful as when the director leaves.  How the transition to new leadership is managed reveals a lot about the organization and its leadership.  Most important, it plays a key role in determining the organization’s future.

The results of poorly planned or badly managed leadership transitions in arts organizations are plentiful. Damaged careers, disillusioned boards, dysfunctional staff relations, disaffected funders, puzzled constituents, and even the demise or diminished influence of some great organizations have followed in the wake of inept transitions.

No one likes to discuss succession

Succession is an uncomfortable topic.  It forces people to think about and discuss the possibility of dramatic change.  It is the last thing most people want to do, especially when things are going well.

You cannot escape the subtext that goes along with any conversation about succession.  It is not pleasant or easy to talk about.  The subtext includes:  the director is getting fired by the board; the director is quitting (because of the board, a better job, personal choices, or retirement); or the director has died.   Thinking about and discussing these scenarios creates a level of anxiety, and often suspicion.  The director may believe the board is subtly suggesting they move on.  The board may believe the director is hinting at having plans to leave.  It can force directors to reveal their plans for the future prematurely and can potentially lock people into agreements they later want to change.

Acknowledging the subtext directly can help, but there is no escaping the fact that everyone will walk away from these meetings wondering if there is something they should be reading between the lines.  One of the best ways to deal with succession planning is to place it into your annual meeting schedule permanently, perhaps even through your bylaws, so every third meeting of the year will include reviewing and revising the succession plan.  Over time, having the topic embedded into your annual calendar may reduce some of the stigma.  This will not reduce the hurdle of forming a succession plan initially.

Leaving well enough alone and putting off succession planning until tomorrow is imprudent and irresponsible.  Such transitions are inevitable, and they are critical moments for an organization. If succession is handled well, an organization can maintain, and even elevate, its place in the arts community. If it is mishandled, an organization can struggle or even fail.

see Sample Director Evaluation Form (PDF)

Getting started

When is the best time to begin succession planning?

Yesterday! Otherwise, start as soon as possible. Developing a succession plan is like buying insurance. You don’t wait until someone is sick or injured to sign up for health insurance; you do it when that person is healthy. Similarly, boards should not wait until the pressure is on to begin developing a succession plan. That is when they want to be able to take the plan down from the shelf and implement it.

How is succession planning structured?

Succession planning must proceed along two tracks. One is determining how to go about replacing the director. The other is deciding who will take over in the event of a sudden vacancy, and how that person will do the job, often on short notice, and without proper experience.

see Sample Succession Plan Policy (PDF) and a Sample Succession Plan (PDF)

Who has the responsibility to hire the director?

Hiring the right person is the responsibility of the board of directors.  In many ways, it is the single most important role of the board.   However, most of the time they cannot and do not have all the information they need to make the wisest selection.  Seldom does the board know enough about the day-to-day operations of the organization and the talents and interests of the remaining staff to make an informed decision on their own.  Better choices are made when staff input is factored heavily into the equation.

Should non-board members be involved in the selection of new staff?

If necessary, the board should involved non-board members in appropriate ways. The board could:

  • Invite key members of the organization’s staff to participate in the selection process, as advisors or even as voting members.
  • Engage a consultant to help deal with what might be the unfamiliar task of selecting a new director.

Is it wise for the board to develop a list of characteristics for “the perfect” executive director?

No.  But the board should identify the key qualities and qualifications needed in the next leader. It is important to take a step back and look at where the organization came from, has been, and where you want it to go next.   Build your list of attributes based on where you are now and where you hope to go in the next few years.  Resist the temptation to define the ideal successor as a carbon copy of the person who just left –you’ll just end up disappointed.

Where does the board look for direction in this process?

The board should draw from the strategic plan and answer some core questions:

  • Where do we want this organization to be in two, three, or five years? What should it look like? What should it be doing or not doing?
  • In what areas are we currently successful? Where are we weak?
  • Who are our stakeholders? Who are our audiences? Who are the funders? Who are the community leaders? Who is on the board? Who is on the staff? Who volunteers for the organization? Who would we like all of these stakeholders to be in the future?
  • How well do we meet the needs of our current stakeholders? What might we do differently to address the needs of stakeholders we want to attract?
  • What are the critical issues we are facing now? What issues will we be confronting in the next two to five years?
  • What changes in our environment are likely and need our consideration?

Should the board leave some questions unanswered until the new director is hired?

This is a bad idea. It is similar to asking the pilot to decide on a destination after all the passengers are seated. The board needs to know where it wants the organization to go before it can determine which of several candidates is best qualified to lead it there. If boards don’t make some substantive decisions about goals and direction, they are missing the opportunity to make a strong match between the needs of the organization and the new leader’s expectations and abilities.

What happens if the board asks the new director to set the organization’s course?

Often times, this will invite trouble. In the absence of guidance, a new director could, with the best of intentions, take the organization in a direction that is inconsistent with the work the board has done to refine its vision and goals.

Updating the job description

The board and staff should work together to make sure that the current job description for the director is accurate and complete.  Expectations of candidates are set by this document, so it needs to reflect what the director really does and the hours required to do it in.  This is an opportunity for the board to align the job with the organization’s future needs. A realistic job description is a must.

What should a good job description look like?

A good job description will give both the board and the potential candidates a clear, accurate, and specific idea about what is expected of the new director. It should cover:

  • The general parameters of the position: overall purpose of the organization, programs, reporting relationships, budget and staff size, salary range, benefits package.
  • The areas of responsibility and specific results for which the person will be held accountable.
  • The timeframe and process for job performance assessment.
  • The scope of authority the person will have.
  • The qualifications in education, experience, and skills required for the position.

see Job Descriptions (PDF) , Sample Interview Questions (PDF) and a Sample Interview Assessment (PDF)

Identifying key qualities to look for

Coming to agreement on the qualities they are looking for in a new leader is probably the most important step board members can take in succession planning. The board needs to know what it is looking for in a new director before it starts the search.

A good first step is to collect input from the board, staff, and outgoing director if that is possible.   Consider bringing in someone from outside the organization to compile the results.  If there is a big disconnect between the board and staff, and/or between visions for the future, then that should be addressed before moving forward.

Once the key leadership qualities or criteria have been identified, the next step is to prioritize them in terms of importance.  This is no easy task, but it is one that should not and cannot be avoided.

see Sample Survey for Identifying Key Qualities for the New Director (PDF)


The work of the search committee

While selecting the new director is the responsibility of the entire board, screening potential candidates is too labor-intensive a process to involve every member of the board.

Creating a search committee is an effective strategy in finding the new director. It is usually the prerogative of the board chair or the executive committee, as specified in the organizational bylaws, to appoint this committee.

When designating who will make up the search committee, consider the following:

What size should the search committee be?

The committee should be large enough to represent a cross-section of the board but small enough to work effectively as a group. Three to five members is a manageable size, nine is the maximum.

Who should be on the search committee?

This group should be able to make decisions and collaborate well together. Membership in this process is time consuming and those involved should have a commitment to finishing the task at hand.  The board chair should be on this committee and should appoint other members who represent a balance of skills, expertise, tenure with the organization, and points of view.  It is a smart strategy to include the next-likely chair on the committee, and better still to have them serve as committee chair.  Staff members can add enormous value to the search committee, however the staff serving on the committee should not be under consideration for the vacant position.  It is ill advised to involve the departing staff in the search committee.

What tasks are the search committee charged with?

It is very important for the board to clarify the committee’s charge. They need to let the search committee know how many candidates the board wants to consider.  It is important to maintain a balance between involvement of the full board and the search committee’s work.  The search committee is small and can move swiftly, but a balance must be struck between the desire to expedite the search, and ensuring that the full board feels ownership of the decision.  Confidentiality is another factor to weigh into the equation.  Search committee members should all sign a confidentiality agreement.

How should the search committee be staffed?

One person will be required to devote considerable time to ensuring that the committee’s work is done carefully.  This can be a member of the committee, an outside consultant, or a staff member.  Whoever takes on this responsibility should be reliable, discreet, and able to devote the time it takes for this critical process.

How does the rest of the board participate in the search process?

Care should be taken to ensure those not on the search committee feel they are informed of the process and have ownership over the direction of the search.  It takes less time to involve them upfront than to neutralize them after-the-fact.

Handling the vacancy

Finding a suitable person to fill the vacancy of the executive director position can sometimes take time. During the interim, the board can appoint a staff member, someone from outside the organization, or a board member to temporarily fill the vacancy.

see Sample Exit Interview (PDF) and Sample Exit Interview Questions (PDF)

Should a staff person be appointed as acting director during the hiring process?

If a suitable person is available, this can have many advantages. It can allow the board the time it needs to properly conduct this process. It can position the organization to move forward confidently in a time of uncertainty. The board can evaluate the acting director as a potential candidate to fill the position permanently. There are risks when a staff member is appointed to this interim position. The person appointed to the temporary position may get used to the position and find it difficult to return to their former job when a new director is hired. The incoming director may view the interim as a threat and often the interim will find a job elsewhere, usually taking valuable organizational history with them.  Sometimes, the board will appoint the interim by default to the directorship after lengthy and fruitless searches. The new director feels like they were the board’s last choice.  It is a bad way to start a new relationship.

Is appointing an interim director from outside the organization a good idea?

While this option offers many of the same advantages as naming someone from inside the organization as interim, it is often difficult to implement. The person from outside will probably lack the information and experience to really run the organization. With this handicap, this person may fail at gaining the confidence of the other staff and the board. Alternatively, this appointment might give this person the inside track on becoming the permanent replacement and could make the interim appointment a trial run for a promising candidate. The board needs to make its expectations and conditions of this type of appointment extremely clear to avoid problems for everyone involved.

Is there wisdom in appointing a board member as the interim director?

Almost always, this is a bad idea.  While a board member will have a deeper understanding of the organization’s mission and programs than an outsider, this solution is likely to create difficulties. Some board members in this position become accustomed to running the organization and like micromanaging the staff; this practice can be hard to stop after a director is hired.  The authority the board member carries makes it hard for the staff to alert the board when things are going badly.  Board members are likely to feel more like they are doing the organization a favor and feel empowered to pick and choose what they do.  One board member serving as interim director did not care for writing grants or organizing fundraising events, so they didn’t.  The board didn’t fully understand the financial implications of their decision for almost a year and it took nearly five years to recover!