Embracing Leadership Transitions

By Robin SnidowDimple Abichandani

April 13, 2018

Leadership transitions happen all the time in philanthropy, but we rarely talk about the challenges and lessons they reveal. For the most part, our inclination is to try to keep the internal dynamics of our institutions private and (often) separate from our grantmaking. But because organizational change happens to all of us, we have come to see leadership transitions as offering lessons that can be illuminating not just to us but to our grantees and colleagues in other organizations as well.

Three and a half years ago, Lani Shaw, the longtime executive director of General Service Foundation (GSF), passed away suddenly. During her twenty years as GSF’s first executive director, the foundation transitioned from being staffed by family members to having a full-time professional staff. Lani’s passing put into motion a number of additional changes.

We know from experience that embracing change can be hard. But change can also propel an institution forward, because when it is embraced, it can be an opportunity to connect with our values and work in new ways. This is why, as we mark the two-year anniversary of a new executive director joining General Service Foundation, we wanted to share what we have learned on our journey.

1. Expectations: Transitioning to new leadership is just the beginning.

Robin Snidow (GSF Board Chair): It was a wake-up call when I realized that the hiring of a new executive director was only the beginning of the transition. I had my nose to the ground and was focused on the day-to-day business of keeping the foundation functioning. However unrealistic it may have been, I thought my work would be done once we hired the new ED.

That was not the case, and board chairs need to be aware. Transition means change, and change is dynamic. I wasn’t trying to change anything while the executive director position remained vacant. But once Dimple [Abichandani] was hired, I knew we had to be open to changing if we wanted to take full advantage of the opportunities her hiring presented.

Lesson learned: Prepare the board for change. As board chair, don’t assume your job is over or that it will get easier when you fill an executive position. That’s when the fun starts!

Dimple Abichandani (GSF Executive Director): I remember a staff member saying at one point during my first few weeks here how happy she was that the transition was over and things could “return to normal.” Her statement captured just how taxing it can be for an organization to go through the uncertainty of an executive transition. It took us all time to recognize that while the search process had ended, the transition was only beginning. When I look back on that period, I realize now how important it is for leadership to manage expectations.

It is also important for staff and board to be aware that a new leadership perspective may lead to opportunities to build a stronger container for the organization’s work. It may also be an opportunity to build on the efforts of previous team members in new ways. All this takes time to figure out and implement.

Lesson learned: Be realistic and clear with expectations. Acknowledge that when a new leader joins a team, things will shift and evolve.

2. Culture: Change is hard because most change involves changing culture.

DA: When I started to understand that every change, big or small, represented a culture change for the organization, I started to talk explicitly about the culture I was trying to create. In the early days, I characterized changes such as moving our team to shared electronic calendars as being no big deal. When these seemingly “small” changes were not met with universal enthusiasm, I was initially baffled by why they should be difficult to implement. Slowly, I realized that what I saw as “small” changes represented a bigger cultural shift — and pain point — for the organization. So I started to be more explicit about the kind of organizational culture I was trying to foster — one that emphasized greater collaboration and integration across programs — and to connect changes, big and small, to that vision.

Lesson learned: Explicitly name culture changes as such and put them into a broader context of the culture you want to co-create.

RS: It’s helpful to understand when you have a new leader in place that change is inevitable. We had to remind ourselves of this, particularly because we have a culture that we’d been building for decades. Lani was very much a part of that culture. Hearing that things needed to change is hard when you’ve been doing things a certain way. It can feel like a criticism and, while building trust helps, it can be difficult. However, there are ways to approach change that can make it feel less threatening and help ease the tension between preserving existing systems and being open to new ways of doing things.

Lesson learned: An attitude of “Let’s try this” is important. Know that things are going to change and be open and transparent in your efforts to change longstanding culture.

3. Relationships: In your first year, focus on building relationships and establishing trust.

RS: My number-one job in the first year was to support and create the conditions that would enable our new executive director to be successful. I needed to have her back, to trust her, and to be her thought partner. Successful leadership is the foundation of a successful organization. We established trust by making sure that nothing was off limits. I encouraged Dimple to share any struggle or problem with me, and together we worked to find solutions. It was not only a way to try to solve an issue but good practice for us to learn to work together and to count on each other. Even when we could not come up with an immediate solution, we still had the confidence that we would in time because we had become a team.

Lesson learned: It’s okay to go slow and focus on relationship building, which often requires time and patience. The bond between ED and board chair is a critical one, so bringing an intentional focus to that relationship is important. The foundation for a successful transition rests on creating strong internal relationships.

DA: During my first year, my number-one priority was relationship building. I was joining a foundation that had experienced a long period of stability and little change. Lani had been at GSF for more than twenty years, and we had board members who had been serving the organizations for decades. I knew that if staff and board members didn’t trust or know me, then nothing would work, so I prioritized building these relationships, spending one-on-one time with board members to learn what was important to them and to get grounded by their stories and GSF’s history.

My relationship with Robin was pivotal. She was a great sounding board, and I often drew on her deep knowledge of the organization, the board, and the staff. Early in my transition, I shared a challenging situation with her, and hearing her say “I have your back and I know this is hard” was wonderfully reassuring. It affirmed for me we were in this together. We got into the practice of solving problems together, which became the foundation of a positive and productive relationship — not just for us but for the entire organization.

Relationship building with the staff was also key. In my first two months, I traveled with each program officer to a gathering of grantees or fellow funders to get to know them, understand how they work, and witness how we as an institution were showing up.

Lesson learned: You can’t move forward together if you don’t have trust.

4. Internal Support: When a leadership transition involves a longtime executive director, an interim executive director can play an invaluable role.

RS: The decision to hire an interim executive director was based on my need to have a sounding board, a listening partner, someone to strategize with during the time GSF was without a full-time ED. I soon saw how an interim executive director can help bridge the uncertainty of change. Our interim ED was brought on with two main purposes: to support the chair in running the foundation and to help with the search for a new executive director. The unintended benefit was the support the new ED already had in place when she began her new job.

Lesson learned: Have an outside voice to support the board chair during this challenging time. A trusted interim director can help ease potential tensions between staff and board.

DA: Two years into my role, I still often think of our interim ED with gratitude because her work made my transition smoother than it might have been otherwise. Our entire team had only worked with our previous ED; having an interim ED gave them an opportunity to experience a different leadership style. Our interim ED was also very involved in the hiring process. I had the luxury of overlapping with her for almost a month, and part of her task was to structure a transition plan and facilitate an orientation retreat. Her coaching and advice as we went through the transition were invaluable.

Lesson learned: In a transition following a long-serving executive, an interim director can help prepare staff for change.

5. External Support: Find your people — your co-conspirators and confidants.

RS: It is so important to find your people and draw support and lessons from those relationships. As board chair, it was important to engage other members of the board so they were fully bought into the transition and the prospective changes that might come with it. Speaking to peers in philanthropy and nonprofits can also help answer questions and overcome challenges that may come up.

Lesson learned: Draw support and lessons from trusted partners, including board members.

DA: I have found so much joy in finding co-conspirators and confidants to lean on, getting their perspectives and learning from them. Being able to reach out and build confidential supportive relationships with other executive directors, particularly the new generation of leaders of color in philanthropy, has provided an important community for many of us, a space where we can align our work with partner organizations in ways that have a broader value and benefit.

Lesson learned: Build community with your peers. It makes the work more fun and impactful. 

Final Thoughts

The main lesson we learned from our journey is that leadership transitions are a work in progress requiring intentional focus for as long as it takes to cultivate the relationships and culture necessary to make the transition successful. From speaking to peers in philanthropy, we know that most leadership transitions involve challenges. But transitions can be joyful, too, because they enable us to connect with one another and our work in new ways. For us, taking the time to develop openness and trust meant that when challenges arose, we were more effective in coming up with solutions together. It also meant we were both in a better position to think boldly, take risks, and be brave alongside each other and in partnership with the organization as a whole.

No two transitions will be the same, but we can all find our own ways to embrace change and see leadership transitions as opportunities for reflection and strengthening our organizations. A successful leadership transition matters not just to the organization undergoing the change but to all of us working in the social justice ecosystem. When a transition fails, it hurts our collective efforts on behalf of equity and justice. And when transitions are successful, we are able to move closer toward our shared goal of transforming the world.

Dimple Abichandani is executive director and Robin Snidow is the board chair of the General Service Foundation, which is dedicated to building a more just and sustainable world. 

Article posted to Philanthropy News Digest: