Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Transitions are Good

It has been a few weeks since The Foraker Group announced my transition as its CEO. The journey to this decision was neither fast nor undertaken without considerable planning. I have the best job imaginable, and I am willingly leaving with the board’s reluctant approval, because they, and I, think it is the best time for the organization. 

Most of my 42 years at work have been productive and enjoyable because of the amazing colleagues I have partnered with. The past 23 years in Alaska, starting at United Way of Anchorage and evolving into Foraker, have been the best. I love the staff and the leaders that serve on the boards. In addition, I get to work with the best community minded Alaskans in the nonprofit sector who are serving their communities as volunteers and professionals. What could be bad about that?

Nothing! But it is time for my transition.

Some news reports and many rumors have been incorrect. I am not retiring, just stepping down as the CEO at Foraker. I listened to advisors years ago about saving for retirement. I have actually done a pretty good job, but it’s to my advantage to work until I’m a little older. My crazy schedule makes me look older than I am – I’m not that old yet. 

But some may wonder, “why now?”

A few months ago, in the July 2014 newsletter, I suggested that if a nonprofit CEO was more concerned about how to hang on to the job until retirement; if he or she was no longer planning ten years into the future for the benefit of the organization; if her or his energy lessens; then maybe it was time to plan a transition. I’m not “over the hill” nor do I want to be “put out to pasture,” but I shouldn’t try to fool myself or others that I can continue at the pace that most have grown accustomed to. Serving as CEO for an organization that has a statewide mission requires considerable energy. In the light of the current economic challenges our state and sector are facing, we need new energetic leadership to help the nonprofit sector in Alaska in the manner it deserves. But the state’s financial woes were not a consideration. There were many other factors that were more compelling, and we made this decision before we knew the severity of the current situation.

The decision to leave at this time was made through insights gained from many advisors as well as research on CEO transitions. The board and I have explored at least 40 articles on the subject. I have never seen a group of directors take their job more seriously. We have actively been talking about this event for over four years.

Our initial investigation about transitions began in 2005, when Diane Kaplan learned of a session at CompassPoint, Foraker’s cousin organization in the Bay Area, on CEO transitions. She encouraged Jim Maley, then the executive at Alaska Children’s Services (now Alaska Child and Family) and me to attend. He had confidentially mentioned that he was beginning to think about his transition and Diane, being my friend, knew my bias, so she guessed that I might soon have those same thoughts. 

Since then, there has been a lot of attention to the inevitable transition of Baby Boom CEO’s. Maybe it’s because so many of the researchers themselves are Baby Boomers? Maybe my generation continues to be so narcissistic that it feels compelled to over-analyze everything to justify its importance? But more to the point, I’m not the first nonprofit leader of my generation to make a transition, nor will I be the last – there are many more to come. We hope that through sharing how and why I reached my decision, it will help others early in their transition planning. Maybe it will help them start the process of letting go.

In my early career, I had been advised by mentors that in order to have a lasting impact, one must stay in a CEO position for at least six years; but at some point, their feeling was that if an executive stayed too long, there could be a diminished positive legacy. Many studies agree and suggest that nonprofit CEOs should examine their effectiveness if they stay in a job 10 to 15 years to make sure they are the right person to continue leading.

Other insights from research included that planning for a transition should be strategic and ongoing. Boards and executives should have regular conversations about transition. While few boards want to rush a good executive out of the job, the more transparent the communication execs and their boards have about transitions, the better. At some point, determining the time to leave and giving the board sufficient time to prepare is critical. We also learned that while informing the board and early planning were advised, publically announcing a specific time for the departure, even sharing the date with the staff, should not be too early; six to eight months max prior to the departure. The reason? As soon as a transition is announced, the anxiety of staff, clients and funders increases until they meet the next leader.

But all advisors point out that every organization, every leader and every circumstance is different, so each unique situation needs careful review. All studies agree that there should be a planned, thoughtful leadership transition and that organizations need new blood and increased energy from time to time. So my long-held beliefs, along with the research to back it up, helped us make the decision that now is a good time. When I accepted the position to be the first CEO at Foraker, I only promised 6 to 8 years. I have been focused on planning for and running Foraker for 15 years. It is time for new energy.

In Foraker’s last strategic plan (completed four years ago), my transition was a written objective. The active planning for the departure was a stated priority in our annual plan for the past three years. My departure should not come as a shock to anyone who saw these documents. Two and a half years ago, in numerous confidential (executive session) conversations with the board, we thought through the best way for the transition to start and for a search process to begin. One innovation from discussions included a realization that in addition to a transition plan and an executive search plan, we should develop a plan for bringing in the new CEO. We worked hard to ensure that the processes used would be thorough and have the best result.

During the last two years I also began to spend more time out of the office on vacation – part of the transition process. It was also when the board finally accepted the inevitable – that I would leave. But still, no specific time for my departure was determined. Then, in early 2014, the board and I agreed that the transition would likely occur before 2016. 

After returning from my spring vacation last June, the board and I set specific transition in motion and the date was set. We planned that they would begin to seek the new CEO in the first quarter of 2015 and select the best candidate some time in the third quarter of 2015.

I will not be a part of the search process nor the selection of the new CEO – also good advice from research. It is the board’s job to select their partner, not mine. I will, as I did with my transition from United Way, support the new CEO as much as she or he requests. As their departing partner, it will be my pleasure to support the board and its new staff leader.

Traditional cultures understand that the young are the primary hunters, gatherers, and warriors, and that as one becomes an elder those expectations must change. Elders are revered because they have lived for many years and have much wisdom to share, but they don’t have the physical nor psychic energy to do what they did in their younger life. I embrace my emerging role as an elder.

What’s next?

We will stay in Alaska. My wife and I have lived here longer than anywhere – it is home and we plan to stay for the foreseeable future. She is dedicated to serving the people she counsels in her private practice. Our son lives here with no plan to leave. And I anxiously wait for the next good winter so I can ski from our new home, a condo, next to the Chester Creek Trail.

At this point details are fluid about my working future, but I hope to continue consulting for a few more years. I have had requests for assistance from around the country but didn’t respond in the past because as the CEO of Foraker, my priority was Alaska. Now I can and will try to increase my national practice. But I also hope to continue to work with nonprofits in Alaska, and if I do, it will be through The Foraker Group. As one of its founders, I would never compete. In addition to consulting, there are a few other part-time opportunities that I will consider. I hope to work a little less and spend more time playing, but I will work. The bottom line – you aren’t rid of me yet.

Many have expressed their concern with my ability to let go – to eventually retire. They don’t really know me. I have no doubt that when I have financial security, I will enthusiastically retire. As I have strived to succeed in my career, I am certain I will succeed in retirement.

To me retirement is not sitting on the couch day after day. I see myself volunteering and staying engaged in community life. But what I actually have the most enthusiasm for is spending more time with my family, traveling, reading, and yes, even saving some time to sit on the couch. Starting soon, I will work less and wean from my too hectic schedule. I’ve worked hard so I can have flexible, self-directed time.

So that’s my story. It has been a privilege to serve as the first CEO for The Foraker Group. This little idea first mentioned in the 1993 strategic plan of the United Way of Anchorage has grown into a mature, sustainable organization. Today, we are one of the largest state nonprofit associations, meeting and exceeding the standards set by the National Council of Nonprofits. We have also emerged as one of the largest management service organizations in the country, offering the most diverse and innovative services to Alaska’s nonprofits. We completed over ten years of research to publish one of the most used books nationally on nonprofit sustainability. We have recruited and maintained a staff and an Operations Board and Governance Board that mirror the best practices that we promote through our classes and consulting. We have maintained quality internal operations and have met budget expectations for 14 years. I am proud of all of these accomplishments.

But most important, we have maintained our initial promise – to be an organization that would stand by, strengthen, and support Alaska’s nonprofit sector. We helped nonprofits become more sustainable, strategic and collaborative. We have maintained services relevant to organizations in both urban and rural communities. And we have served as a trusted bridge for Alaska Native leaders and their non-Native counterparts. 

It is a good time to let go. 

And know that I will enthusiastically support with pride the great things the boards and staff of Foraker will accomplish in the future and trust that the truly innovative, adaptive nonprofits in Alaska will continue to thrive.