Transitioning a Client When an Executive Leaves

Image Credit: Canva
Image Credit: Canva

By Linda Owens, Owner and President

Imagine this scenario: You arrive in the office one morning to find a letter of resignation from Chris, an employee who has served as an executive director for the past six years. He’s given two weeks’ notice; not nearly enough time for a smooth transition.

Your first reaction may be:

  • “Oh no, what will we do now?” Chris has served as the executive director to one of your larger clients. You feel Chris’ departure is a significant loss.


  • “It’s for the better. I have had this nagging feeling about Chris’ performance over the past six months which has required several serious coaching sessions.”

Either way, you are concerned about the immediate transition steps that need to take place. You worry about who will manage the day-to-day priorities of the association in the interim, and may feel as though a search for a new executive director needs to happen immediately.

Not so fast. When an executive director leaves the organization, it provides an opportunity to take a step back and assess several areas: your current organizational structure, your client base, your long-term goals, and the capabilities of your staff. So, don’t panic. Often, what seems like your worst nightmare at the moment can result in an opportunity to reassess your company’s priorities and make changes that will result in increased efficiencies and enhanced effectiveness.

When an executive director leaves, whether it is because they resigned or were dismissed, it’s time to consider your options by taking the following steps:

Begin an assessment of your organization. Do you have the correct structure in place? Maybe your AMC has grown and it is time to move to a more departmentalized structure. How is your client base performing? Maybe this is a good time to assist a struggling client with finding a different management resource that might be a better fit for them. What about the current staff? Maybe the executive director’s departure will afford you the opportunity to promote a star employee who has really proven him/herself.

Write a plan. Draft a clear and precise plan that details the responsibilities of the outgoing executive director, as well as who will handle all other aspects of the transition during the interim period between the executive director’s departure and naming a new key contact person.

Get on the same page. Schedule the outgoing executive director to spend time with management reviewing the client’s production schedule to determine the status of all projects. If a new executive director has been selected, that person also should be involved in this meeting.

Communicate. Inform the staff of the changes, what you know for certain and the decisions that are still pending. Any change to a client’s team has an effect on the entire office. Communication is vitally important in keeping a staff functional and positive in spirit. People are social creatures and tend to discuss what is going on around them. It is important for staff to have factual information otherwise there will be a lot of speculation.

Notification should take place as soon as possible, even if they have to be told that final transition plans have not been made; the discussion should be open and frank. Consider involving staff in the transition and search process. It also is helpful to meet individually with those employees that are directly impacted by the change to give them an opportunity to share how they are feeling about the changes. This will help alleviate some of the stress that naturally occurs when there are significant changes in an employee’s role within the organization.

Determine board input. During the transition, decide how much input the board of directors should have and, possibly, in the candidate selection process as well. There are some clients that interact on a daily basis with the staff and who place a high regard on the executive director, so it would be important to notify the board of directors immediately. There are other clients with whom it would be very important that you have a transition plan firmly in place to reassure them that the AMC has a clear transition plan in place. In either case, the executive director’s scheduled departure should be communicated as soon as possible. This communication with the client leadership should include regular and frequent updates on the transition process; all such communications should be done face-to-face, whenever possible, and should be done by a senior executive of the AMC.

Resist the urge to rush the interview or selection process. Conduct a behavioral-based interview, asking questions that will help you determine if your candidate is a good overall fit. Don’t forget the importance of background checks and be sure to call those professional references (be aware of the employment laws in your state). Do not settle for a less than perfect fit for the client or you will surely regret it later.

Once the new executive director is selected, immediately introduce the new executive director to the board of directors. As soon as possible, send an announcement should to all of the client’s members informing them of the exciting news. With your new executive director in place, it is time to start positioning the new hire for success. Extra involvement from the AMC management team may be needed during the learning curve, particularly in the case where an executive director is replacing someone who was dismissed or who had a history of performance problems. Perform a 30-60-90 day review to assure that the new candidate is indeed a good fit and continue to check-in often with the new executive director and the association’s leadership.

Now, pat yourself on the back for successfully putting out another fire.

Want to know more about association management? Contact us to find out more about what IMI Association Executives can do for your organization.

A version of this article previously appeared in the December 2009 edition of ASAE’s AMC Connection.

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