Executive Succession Do's and Don'ts



The last 24 months have brought many transitions in association leadership. Given the sheer numbers of Baby Boomers in leadership positions and the mass reevaluation of careers and health risks that is underway amid COVID, I expect more transitions to come. Whether you are preparing for your first or your next position as chief staff executive of an association, a smooth transition will dramatically increase your probability of success. Here are a few transition do's and don'ts based on personal observation and professional interactions with hundreds of leaders over the past two decades:

DO have a detailed but flexible transition plan in place before announcing a vacancy in executive leadership. The plan should include end-of-employment details of the outgoing executive (announcements, recognition, receptions, etc. - mutually agreed upon by the executive and board leadership), search details, a timeline, a plan for orienting and onboarding the new executive, and related announcements. 

DON'T announce the voluntary departure of outgoing executive until just before the search commences. Prolonged uncertainty about leadership is detrimental to organizations. Executive searches generally take 3-9 months to complete - this is adequate time to ramp up for a successful transition. It ensures the outgoing executive will have ample opportunity for closure while still preserving their authority and significant role in the association.  

DO establish a collegial relationship with the outgoing executive, if possible. Being able to consult with the previous executive on past strategy and board, staff, and member dynamics is a huge help to newly placed executives. The insights gleaned are invaluable, and the consultation demonstrates respect for the outgoing executive's knowledge and body of work.       

DON'T commit to long-term co-work arrangements unless you're 100% certain the model will work for both executives. Well-intentioned board members often suggest long-term (6 mos+) co-work arrangements to ensure knowledge transfer, but such arrangements require amenable leadership styles and clear boundaries for both executives and employees. When not managed well, these situations can result in outgoing executives being frustrated with their lame-duck status, incoming executives being afraid of overstepping and offending the outgoing executive, and staff members hesitant to connect with or take direction from the incoming executive due to fear of being disloyal to the outgoing executive. When long-term co-working isn't a good fit, knowledge transfer can be accomplished via a short-term co-working arrangement (1-3 mos) and a long-term consultation contract (6 -12 mos) with the outgoing executive.     

DO form your own relationships with and opinions about employees and board members. One-on-one meetings are a common way to begin doing so. While it's helpful to approach a new position with a spirit of inquiry and actively listen when the outgoing executive, board leaders, and staff members share their perspectives on others, you must sort through all that 'information' to form your own opinions.  

DON'T be afraid to ask for help. The top seat can seem lonely and frustrating, but it doesn't have to! MSAE has lots of resources available for new and transitioning association executives:

What advice might you have about executive transition? Please share by commenting below!