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A healthy transition: Twin Cedars readies for succession

For the past year, GCN Senior Consultant Mary Bear Hughes has been working with the board and staff leadership of Twin Cedars Youth and Family Services to prepare the organization, a 200-person operation with a current budget of $15 million, for its first executive director transition in 20 years. To find out what they’ve learned in the process, and how it’s changed the way they think about managing and developing their people, Hughes spoke with Board President Cathy Smith and outgoing ED Mike Angstadt as they get ready for the next critical stage in their transition: selecting a leader to take over from Angstadt.

Mary Hughes: At this stage of planning for the leadership transition, what is at the top of your mind?

Board President Cathy Smith: First, we are glad to have the time to do it properly – not all organizations have 18 to 24 months to plan and implement an executive transition. It would have been different if we had a director taking another job, or another emergency situation. We’re fortunate to have Mike helping make it a smooth process. You can’t just go out and find another Mike. As often happens with long-term staff, he’s retained a lot of his original responsibilities and direct reports while accumulating many others. It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack to find someone with the unique set of skills that Mike brings to Twin Cedars. As part of that preparation, we’ve been thinking about how some of Mike’s responsibilities can be handled by existing or new team members.

It’s made me reflect on the importance of identifying opportunities to prepare – the need to continually, or at least periodically, review the organizational chart and consider how any long-term staffer could be replaced without stress to the organization. Part of that is asking how we can spread out responsibilities a bit so we’re not counting on one person to cover so many key tasks. How can we develop our own team to take on part of the load?

Identify opportunities to prepare – continually, or at least periodically, review the organizational chart and consider how any long-term staffer could be replaced without stress to the organization.

Hughes: Has the leadership development work that Mike’s done helped in that regard?

Smith: Mike formalized the leadership development piece by creating Twin Cedars University, which grooms employees and strengthens the organization’s capacity. In that way, we’re preparing the organization to handle future transitions, planned or emergency, at multiple levels of management. As the former director of a very small nonprofit, I know that’s important whether you have 10 people or 200.

Executive Director Mike Angstadt: Realizing that I was getting ready to leave, and sharing that with the board and the leadership team, I noted that we had done a lot to grow in terms of acquisitions and program development, but not nearly enough in terms of nurturing our “farm team.” My first thought about it now is, “Gosh, I wish we had started this five years earlier.” That is, we weren’t doing leadership development systemically: Individual managers varied in their approach. Twin Cedars University is a real tool for nurturing and polishing talent, and a model that shows employees, donors, and partners that we’re serious about human resource development. Currently, we’ve got 13 members in the program, selected through consensus voting by our leadership team, with a full year of monthly courses covering topics like team-building, governance, performance and quality improvement, and more.

Smith: It’s a really important retention tool as well: Our employees feel like, “I have long-term potential here, I can see and understand a path.”

Angstadt: One thing I’d change: I put a lot of energy into curriculum development, but not enough into program evaluation. There’s an oral evaluation at the end of each session, but my recommendation for the future is to capture participants’ thoughts and feelings in writing after each session. We’re very much driven by qualityimprovement elsewhere, but I was so focused on curriculum I forgot that aspect in the first year of the program.

Job creep is difficult to see from the inside: No one steps back to say, “How many things have I absorbed over time?” You could end up covering a combination of organizational components unlikely to fall into one person’s skill set.

Hughes: What else do you recommend for organizations considering their employees’ growth as leaders?

Angstadt: Cathy alluded earlier to job creep, which is something people in our positions need to be mindful of.

Smith: Ideally, boards need to address that ahead of time, as part of the organizational structure and the executive director’s annual evaluation. Job creep is difficult to see from the inside: No one steps back to say, “How many things have I absorbed over time?” You could end up covering a combination of organizational components unlikely to fall into one person’s skill set. Job creep like Mike’s happens gradually, and it works as long as Mike is still there. But now, it feels like we’re losing two people, our director of development and our executive director. We’ve got to reorganize so the next person to come in won’t be completely overwhelmed. That’s why strategic planning should always include succession planning, mapping talent needs and leadership development for each year of the plan.

Hughes: Twin Cedars has a lot of people on staff to consider for development and advancement. How might a smaller organization handle the same challenge?

Smith: As the former director of a small organization, I can say that it would require a different approach: Evaluating the talents of on-hand staff, and asking which skill sets could be developed to cover additional, related tasks that cross department lines. My organization had very specific programs, where nobody had the same jobs – meaning no one could ask anyone else, “How are you doing it in your group?” If you spread some of the major responsibilities among more people, they can better support each other, and better protect the organization in an emergency absence.

Despite your intentions, former leaders can stymie growth by lingering. It’s important to let people know how strongly you feel about the organization by not allowing it to limp along in your shadow.

Hughes: So even if you don’t have somebody to groom for your next development director opening, there may be a staffer who can get involved in an aspect like grant-writing – contributing some major pieces, or leading it while others contribute – which also creates continuity for new leaders coming in. As news of Mike’s transition spreads, how are different groups of stakeholders responding?

Smith: Because of all that Mike does, the board was taken a bit off-guard by what it really meant. When we started figuring out what was needed, we realized we should have started thinking it years ago.

Angstadt: Many of the staff don’t want to talk about it – they like to change the subject. Some encourage me to make a partial break: “You’re leaving in January, but you’ll help us raise money or be at this special event, right?” I usually ask them how often they’ve seen a former pastor sit in the front pew when a new pastor is delivering a sermon. That doesn’t happen because, despite your intentions, former leaders can stymie growth by lingering. It’s important to let people know how strongly you feel about the organization by not allowing it to limp along in your shadow. A book called Leaving Home, by the family therapist Jay Haley, reveals a lot of similarities between teenagers leaving the nest and executives leaving an organization: Sometimes there needs to be a fuss or a fight, a kind of intentional distancing. Other times there’s a refusal to let go: “You can go to college, but only 40 miles away so you can come home every weekend.

There’s another book called The Body Keeps the Score, about trauma, which says that if you don’t manage transitions correctly, something in your body is going to let you know – whether it’s tossing and turning at night or grinding your teeth. It’s important to be mindful of how you separate, and how you help a new leader gain acceptance.

Change is difficult, because it can be hard for staff to understand what they can do and to help drive it. … Have open conversations to reassure them that they’ll have new opportunities to take on challenges and grow professionally.

Hughes: That is a great analogy: You don’t want the body of the organization to suffer as a result of not thinking it through. What have you found that works to assuage staff anxiety?

Smith: Change is difficult, because it can be hard for staff to understand what they can do to help drive it. Ending my own tenure as executive director, it was easier for me to ease staff anxiety because there weren’t very many of them. I could talk to everybody individually, having open conversations to reassure them that our direction was the same, our board was the same, and that they’d have opportunities to take on new challenges and grow professionally.

Angstadt: There’s also reassurance in ceremony, in the sense that it gives us a chance to acknowledge staff and change. I went to the retirement party Cathy’s staff threw for her, and I think it was as important for them to gather their people, to hold it in a special location, and to honor everyone’s journey together.

Smith: It’s not unlike family traditions, where every Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve goes the same. Someone new coming in doesn’t necessarily know how things are supposed to go, so establishing some clear continuity, even in the little things, can make the transition less difficult for both the staff and the newcomer. 

Cross-train people or find volunteers who know the job. Make sure your employees are reporting, analyzing, and reviewing their work, documenting metrics and steps so that if they leave, someone else can understand their work and their goals.

Hughes: That’s an important quality to be mindful of: Making sure a new ED can take a listening attitude, learn what’s working and what isn’t, and carefully prioritize what needs changing rather than turning everything upside-down at once. Cathy, you’ve talked a little bit about your own transition. What other takeaways do you have regarding that experience?

Smith: I wish I’d thought about it proactively – not only for my transition but for other staffers as well. That takes concerted, intentional planning. Too often, you do what you have to do today, and you don’t think about the what-ifs.

Overhead is always a problem in nonprofits, and finding money to support staff is the hardest part, so it’s best to figure out how you can cross-train people or find volunteers who know the job. Make sure your employees are reporting, analyzing, and reviewing their work, documenting metrics and steps so that if they leave, someone else can understand their work and their goals. Any job that’s been created around a particular person, or evolved to fit them, needs to be examined frequently to ensure each key function can be handled in their absence.

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