I remember a friend saying, Oh, my parents divorced but it is no big deal. It’s common. I can see why this would be a thread of logic: it happens often, we (as a society) get used to it, it shouldn’t affect me. But the difference is that this thing, while common, is deeply personal and happens to an individual and significantly impacts their life. I relate it to a broken leg: broken legs are pretty common, but they hurt like hell to the person they happen to. Just because they are common does not make them any less painful.
The same goes for leadership transitions. We “should” be fine with leadership changes as they happen frequently in business. But the frequency of a big deal does not diminish the potential for uncertainty, confusion or lack of confidence. When I knew I was going to leave Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, where I got to serve for five years as Chief Philanthropy Officer, I had one goal: a forgettable transition.
Let’s be clear: I did not want to be forgettable. I love the people at Second Harvest and want them to remember me as I will always remember them, but I wanted the transition to be as seamless and unnoticeable as possible.
Here is my recipe for a forgettable transition:
- Give as much lead time as possible
I was leaving my job in California to live near my partner and his children in Oklahoma City. I knew that I would want to leave Second Harvest after the holiday fundraising season, so I approached my boss, the CEO, in October to share my intentions. She asked when my last day would be, I said I was flexible and was considering sometime in February, and she suggested mid-March. I gave a 5 ½ month notice.
- Document what you think is going to happen in the six months after you leave
I had no idea who would take over for me, but I wanted to set them up for a soft landing and an understanding of the urgent and important matters for the team. I documented what we wanted to accomplish by the end of the fiscal year and into the next, about six months of activities. It was broken down into high-level strategies and then into tactics. Each Director contributed and I shared this with the CEO and executive team.
- Share the change with the right people in the right order at the right time
I told the CEO, VP of HR, my executive assistant and the CEO’s executive assistant. Then we made a rough communication plan. One main goal was to wait until after Thanksgiving to share with staff as Thanksgiving is such a major fundraising milestone for most nonprofits, but especially food banks. I also did not want to introduce uncertainty during the holiday fundraising season to our donors, so we knew we’d wait until after January to share publicly.
- Do not announce anything accidentally on the radio
So after the CEO and I made this thoughtful communication plan I went home and my wonderful boyfriend proposed to me. The next morning I had a radio interview and since I knew the DJ I shared that I got engaged the night before and we were so giddy. Then we went on the air and I totally forgot to tell him not to say anything. Of course he led with this news and my colleagues and friends who were listening found out on the radio.
- Be prepared to change your communication plan after a DJ accidentally announces it on the radio
That day the CEO and I changed the communication plan as several staff were asking if my fiance was moving to California, which he was not, and I couldn’t lie or answer with a non-answer. So we told staff that week. Now the staff had a five month notice.
- If possible, find your replacement before you go
I am delighted that one of our Directors at Second Harvest was perfect for the role. We posted the position, interviewed candidates and promoted within so that the new Chief Philanthropy Officer and I had one month overlap.
- Tell your donors after you find your replacement
We waited to tell donors until we knew who would be the new Chief Philanthropy Officer. This way the focus is on the new and capable leader, not on the void you are leaving.
- Celebrate your replacement’s promotion, not your departure
We announced my replacement on social, in a press release and to our donors. There was little about my departure publicly. For a forgettable transition, make it about the future of the organization and the mission – both of which are much bigger than one leader’s job change.
- Have several heartwarming and personal parties
We picnicked, we zoomed, we wine-tasted, we dined, we walked. Do all of it.
- Keep in touch
Start reaching out to people well in advance of your departure, and give yourself time to connect 1:1 with colleagues. I held office hours and met with folks in person and virtually. If it makes sense, continue being engaged meaningfully: I am mentoring one amazing human and working on a side project (this very website!) with another.
I feel the significance of this change, as do several of my colleagues, but overall it didn’t cause any drops in revenue or broken processes. It was forgettable in its ease. It was memorable that way, too.