Jeff Jesse, the CEO of the Alaska Mental Health Trust and a Foraker board member reminds us, “How can I miss you if you never leave?” It is official, my last day as the CEO of The Foraker Group is June 30.
In recent newsletters, I expressed an opinion that some Baby Boomers hold onto their positions too long because their job defines their identity. That in itself is not a problem for the institution but it could impact judgment about the best time to leave. But for certain, anyone whose life is their job probably needs to pay more attention to work-life balance. And leaders who believe their presence is required for the organization’s success are both delusional and ineffective. The most important job of the exec is developing the competence of their human resources – staff and board, then delegating as much as possible so it isn’t all about them.
The timing for my departure was based on lessons learned from best practice for transitions mixed with gut feelings and personal beliefs about what made sense. Determining the “right” time to leave may be more art than science. I will share the science that informed our decision as well as our art to help others think through their own inevitable transition. Three factors led to the timing of the transition.
The first factor was based on research (science) that identified key indicators for the best time for a CEO transition. One of these indicators is that the board has the needed skills and relationships and is fully engaged. Also, a highly developed staff is equally important for a smooth transition. Finally, a transition is best when an organization is financially secure. When all indicators show a green light, there is a good chance that transition will be smooth.
I am happy to report that The Foraker Group has a green light on those indicators.
The next two factors are more art, than science.
The next factor is that while not obsolete, my days as an effective CEO for a leadership organization like Foraker were numbered. I no longer have the bandwidth to stay current on emerging trends that a competent executive should understand. While I ponder issues ten years out, my clarity on the future is no longer what it should be. Hopefully I did not stay too long, but I wanted to make sure I left when others would question “why now,” rather than assume I left because I failed. I assume most would prefer leaving at the top of their game rather than in a decline. Based on that thinking, I knew that now was the best time for me to leave. In addition, it has been reported that Gen X and Millennial leaders feel shutout from upward mobility in our sector because so many Boomers are reluctant to leave. I wanted to walk the talk – make space. I hope that others consider their transition timing and make a decision that is not only in their best interest, but in the interest of the organization they steward.
The last factor is truly personal, but probably most important. I have averaged 200 days a year on the road for the past decade. While my kids are grown so don’t need me around, my best friend, Stephanie, my wife, has quietly supported Alaska’s nonprofit sector by allowing, even encouraging, me to spend the time needed for this work. She spent too many nights alone allowing me to serve you. She never pressured my decision to leave, but once the decision was made, it was obvious that it was time. She deserves to share me a little less and I will have more time with the person that means the most to me. Many leaders state that when they leave their job it’s to “spend more time with family.” When you hear me say that, it is the absolute truth.
“The king is dead — long live the queen!”
I can now confide that the past six months have been hard. Letting go of my position is easy – the discipline to not manage or engage in the transition process has been hard.
I worked with the board on my eventual transition for at least seven years. I went to workshops about CEO transitions. I learned what processes worked as well as the obstacles from other’s transitions. Then I shared what I learned, including many articles on the subject with the board. Many of my directors are likely the most informed leaders in Alaska on nonprofit CEO transitions.
Two years ago when the board understood that my desire to leave was sincere, they began to engage in comprehensive discussions, still hypothetical, on what the transition process should involve. Then this time last year, the date was set and a decision made to keep the transition date confidential until early 2015. The board did an amazing job of keeping that fact a secret until plans were in place for the transition; something they learned from research. While there were some variations to actions in the plan, the committee chaired by Steve Marshall was true to its intentionality and followed it in a textbook fashion.
I had faith in them and their process. Even with that confidence, I admit to an occasional doubt about the outcome. After all, there are few Forakers and none of them have individuals that understand the complexity of work in Alaska.
This is what really happened in the process – at least as much as I know. The board was open to internal candidates, but wanted to “shake the bushes” around the state and nation to see who would apply. There was no heir apparent. Alaska Executive Search was contracted to provide an external review of candidates based on the qualities the board expected in the new CEO. They advertised around the country in newspapers and trade journals as well as contacted nonprofit executive search firms throughout the country.
That big net captured almost 50 applicants – 17 from Alaska. The board asked that I not encourage nor advise any candidate. They wanted all candidates to work through them and eventually to make the decision about my successor without further input from me. Research shows that when a board makes the decision with little to no participation from the exiting exec, they are more likely to own the decision – therefore giving maximum support to the new leader who is their choice. My only role was to help develop the process and once the process was complete and a new CEO was hired, to assist with helping that person get on board. I agreed to those terms.
When we announced the transition, it was unclear if anyone on staff would apply. I would like to think that I developed the potential of every member of the Foraker team. But like a parent, would never intentionally favor one over another. Therefore, I did not encourage anyone on staff to apply.
As you now know, one staff member applied. The truth is that she never asked my opinion or my blessing for her decision. She didn’t even tell me that she applied. Once she applied, we never discussed the process even though I eventually learned from others that she applied a month or so into the process. I also had other friends who applied – the ones I know about told me. They may have felt I wasn’t very supportive because I didn’t respond very much about their application. Probably those applicants felt a bit abandoned. For that, I am truly sorry, but I did my best to follow the board’s direction. In addition, I didn’t speak with the search committee or the board members about my opinions during their process. The final decision was theirs – they made it based on their process and best judgment.
With 50 applicants, I am certain we had many highly qualified candidates. Alaska Executive Search narrowed the field to about ten semi-finalists and in consultation with the search committee five finalists were selected for an in-depth interview. All of this time, I was not very informed about the progress of the process nor provided the names of the people that got to that level. I still do not know all the names of people who applied.
I know that two were selected for a final interview. I now know their names. Both of those finalists were superb. I felt a little guilty that I ever doubted that the right candidate could be found.
You know the final decision. While both candidates were excellent, the unanimous decision of the board was to ask Laurie Wolf to become the next CEO for Foraker. She accepted.
Now I can disclose that I cried with joy when I heard the news. (By the way, I was one of the last to hear the decision – that is how out of the loop I was during the process.) While I didn’t encourage Laurie to apply nor provide support during the process, I would be dishonest to say that I wasn’t secretly pulling for her. Ultimately I wanted her to get this job on her own merit, not my word. She had to convince the board she was the right candidate. The fact is that she did that on her own.
Laurie and I have been a successful team for 14 years, since Foraker started. Foraker would not be as successful as it is without her leadership. She more than most understands our accomplishments and what we still must work on. Most important is that she is the chief disciple of the Foraker values that are the foundation of our success.
She will need the support of board and staff, as well as yours. I have confidence in her ability to make good decisions. She is a significant nonprofit leader in the state and around the country. Now that she is in this position, the sky is the limit.
“Long live the queen.”
A Few Final Thoughts
This is the last of 102 newsletters to be published during my tenure as the CEO of The Foraker Group. I began writing articles every month over eight years ago. Many let me know they looked forward to what I will say next month…well, no more. Please accept my sincere thanks for humoring me all these years.
Some articles have been nonprofit news – most have been about issues you brought to our attention. In each article I tried to summarize key points with clarity and sometimes humor. My staff refers to those short statements as “Dennisisms.” Here are a few gleaned from the 100-plus newsletters as points I suggest are the most important to remember.
And in closing:
Live well and prosper – Dennis