Town Talk Features

The Velvet Hammer: 12.1.21

Q: I am a longtime CEO of a nonprofit and plan to retire in the next six months. As the first CEO of the organization, this will be a major change for our staff, board and supporters. Any tips to ensure a seamless transition for my successor?

A: Ideally, the time to begin exit planning—especially for long-term or founding executives—is several years ahead of the retirement date. That said, even if only six months remain, an exit plan is critical for an effective transition for any organization.

As chief executive, you basically have three jobs to perform as you move toward retirement:

  1. Continue to lead the organization during your transition and pave the way for your successor.
  2. Prepare and adjust yourself to the role of a transitional leader.
  3. Prepare the organization for the transition to ensure its sustainability after your departure

Essentially, the exit plan has two tracks, one focused on you as the CEO and the other on the organization.

As CEO, the primary focus is to lead the organization, but at the same time as a leader in transition, to allow yourself to evolve as it  unfolds and your departure draws closer. For most organizations and CEOs, there is never a perfect time to make a transition. However, if possible, it’s usually better to make one after a known pivotal event.

Even then, the tough part is balancing and maintaining a sense of control while encouraging greater engagement of your board and executive team which will include:

  • Encouraging/guiding the board to step up during the succession/planning process.
  • Letting the board take charge of the selection of your successor without controlling it.
  • Supporting the executive management team in assuming more leadership in preparation for its role in onboarding your successor.

In addition, you need to assess the readiness of your organization. Ask yourself the following questions about the organization: Is it sustainable following your departure? Has the right successor been chosen, and should you have other possible candidates in the wings? If you are the primary fundraiser, are you leaving the organization with a financial cushion?

Other considerations should include whether or not your board has the right leadership in place to carry on following the transition. Are they prepared to be effective partners with your successor or do they micromanage and defer to you? If so, what can you do to shift that prior to the transition?

A CEO succession policy is a great tool to get your board and senior management team thinking about the importance of this transition and how to manage it well. The sooner you address the various aspects of your succession plan and develop an effective timeline and sequencing, the smoother the transition will be for all involved and especially for your bottom line.

Joan Lee Berkman is a marketing and public relations consultant. if you have a question for Joan, send it to


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