Organizational Health May 26, 2022

Transition Take-aways: Five tips on how to leave well

Ignacio Saiz
Former Executive Director, Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR)

Earlier this year I stepped down as Executive Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, an international NGO that works to advance economic justice through human rights. After twelve fruitful years in the role, I felt I’d achieved what I set out to do: to pioneer new ways of harnessing the power of human rights to transform our unjust economic system, and to model a different kind of international NGO from the extractive, neocolonial type that still dominates our field.

Having focused my energies on CESR for over a decade, I increasingly felt drawn to channelling them in a different context, whether another NGO, a progressive foundation or a role combining my passion for human rights with my belief in music as a vehicle for social justice.  In 2021, with CESR thriving and a strengthened Board and leadership team in place, it finally felt like the right time to act on this inclination. I was also motivated by the conviction that a healthy organization is one that replenishes its leadership periodically. I’d always told myself I would not stay longer than ten years in the role. The pandemic made that twelve.

The transition was in many ways a smooth and thoughtful one. Giving my Board nine months notice allowed me to play a constructive role in helping to plan and create conditions for an effective process. The transition was an opportunity to take stock of the organization’s current leadership needs, based on its role in the human rights ecosystem, and to profile CESR as a healthy, values-based organization. But there were many challenges, particularly for a Board more used to overseeing processes than driving them. Chief among these was sticking to the recruitment timeline: despite the long notice period, the search was still ongoing when I left. 

There have been a lot of personal and institutional learnings from the process, and many “hindsight insights” into things I or we could have done differently. Given the increased interest in transition planning in this era of “great resignation”, below are some key take-aways from my transition which may be useful to others considering or undergoing a similar process.

Know when it’s time to leave: We denounce country leaders who hold on to power for decades, yet there’s still a widespread culture of very long tenures in our field. How compatible is this with the values we espouse? Some organizations have term limits, some individuals impose their own.  For me it was helpful to identify the organizational conditions that would make it a more appropriate (or less disruptive) time to leave: eg a healthy budget, a commonly owned strategy, a robust leadership team, a more dynamic Board, and a deliberate shift to a virtual team based predominantly in the global South.

Don’t underestimate the time and capacity needs involved: A transition is much more than a recruitment. Reducing it to a bureaucratic search process misses the rich opportunity it presents for organizational strengthening and learning. Before diving into the search, it’s wise to allow for collective reflection and consultation on what type of leadership the organization needs, and how to get the house in order so that a new ED can thrive. After the search, time and resources should be assigned for thorough onboarding, the absence of which is a very common complaint of new EDs. It’s essential to plan realistically and get external help for the transition. Using a search firm may not be viable or desirable for smaller NGOs, but it’s vital to bring in external support to manage the process and ensure adherence to good practice, including principles of equity, inclusion and participation in recruitment.

Communicate the process clearly, internally and externally: The importance of having a written transition plan, and sharing it with all involved, cannot be overstated. Serious delays, frustrations, misunderstandings and organizational risks can arise without a shared understanding of roles, timelines, opportunities for participation and plans for communication to different stakeholders. Ensuring timely, frequent and well-sequenced messaging to staff, board members, partners, allies and funders is key to instilling confidence and trust in the process, and quelling rumor and speculation.

Ensure that staff are engaged in the process: This is not only consistent with values of inclusion and participation, it also makes for sounder outcomes. The new leadership will have more legitimacy in the eyes of staff if the decision to hire them was informed by the staff’s deep knowledge of the organization and field. Staff participation can take many forms, from being consulted on the job description to sitting on the search committee (as was the case at CESR). There should be crystal clarity from the outset about the scope and limits of staff members’ role in decision-making around the search.

Respect the limits of your own role: An outgoing ED plays little role in recruiting their successor, but can play a crucial role in creating conditions for the transition to succeed, eg filling key staffing gaps, making resources available for transition consultants, managing staff concerns, and ensuring a comprehensive handover. Navigating boundaries can be tricky: for example, the Board may question an outgoing ED’s authority to take decisions that might preempt their successor. So discussing your role openly with the Board is key. Don’t neglect to also discuss with them your own offboarding needs, whether it’s a farewell event, coaching support or other steps to ease your transition. While some organizations invite the outgoing ED onto the Board, this can have a constraining and undermining effect on their successor. Similarly, any ongoing consultancy support from the ED (eg for handover purposes) should be strictly at the request of the new ED or the Board.

There are two excellent resources which I found helpful in my transition, both by consultant Martha Farmelo. ED Leadership Transitions: A Practical Guide for NGOs draws on the experience of Latin American human rights NGOs undergoing leadership changes. In Support of Those Who Take the Leap (co-authored with Victoria Wigodzky) distills lessons on transitions from Open Society Foundations’ New Executives Fund (established by Chris Stone as OSF President). Both offer practical guidance on the big challenges executive transitions pose to us as individuals and to our organizations.  As Farmelo says, an ED transition “is both a huge responsibility and an enormous opportunity to create and demonstrate organizational solidity and maturity… while also looking to the future with optimism, emotion and enthusiasm.”