The news about tennis superstar Serena Williams’ retirement has been grabbing headlines, and rightfully so. For 27 years, Williams not only dominated on the tennis court but ultimately transcended the role of a sports star. She changed how many perceive women’s tennis–and how sponsors invest in female athletes. She’s spoken out about race and gender equity, as well as the challenges of balancing motherhood and her tennis career. 

Now, as Williams retires, she’s also teaching us about what it means when leaders move on to their next challenge, and how to prepare for and handle it with elegance and grace. In her Vogue announcement, Wiliams wrote: 

“I’d like to think that thanks to opportunities afforded to me, women athletes feel that they can be themselves on the court.”

Like Williams, nonprofit Executive Directors invest deeply in their organizations. When an Executive Director leads their nonprofit to new levels of success, it becomes hard to imagine the organization going forward without them. 

While succession planning is often the last thing an Executive Director is thinking about, it’s one of the realities an engaged nonprofit Board of Directors should always be prepared for. 

 

Leaving Can Be Emotional for Leaders 

Speaking after one of her final matches, Serena Williams channeled what many nonprofit Executive Directors feel when she said: “Sometimes I think it’s harder to walk away than not.”

Nonprofit leaders are driven by belief in their organizations’ work and a passion to make the world a better place. Leaving can be difficult and emotional. How will the organization carry on without them? But succession planning can make this transition easier. Especially when paired with a strategic plan, succession planning gives Executive Directors the comfort of knowing how the organization’s work will continue onward. 

 

Departures May be Plannedor Not

While Executive Directors may be seen as larger-than-life charismatic leaders, at the end of the day they are also people. They may have families, health concerns, or other commitments, which they could need unplanned time off to manage. These could be short-term or long-term absences. A Board of Directors also can’t expect an Executive Director to stay on indefinitely. Leaders may decide it’s time to take on new challenges or be struggling with the effects of “founder’s syndrome.”

Regardless of the reason for an Executive Director’s absence, the Board of Directors’ role is to ensure there is a well-crafted succession plan in place. This should include the nuts and bolts of legal compliance, decision-making, organizational property and accounts, internal and external communications plans, and interim organizational management. 

 

Honoring the Legacy of Your Nonprofit’s Leadership

When an Executive Director leaves, it inevitably provides an important moment of reflection. If appropriate, a Board of Directors can take this opportunity to honor the Executive Director’s impact on the organization. Or, if the Executive Director’s departure has been a difficult experience, it may instead be the time for the Board of Directors to step back and reconsider the type of leadership and support the organization needs. 

In either case, having a succession plan in placeand ideally a strategic plan as wellwill help your nonprofit weather leadership transitions from a position of strength and grace. 

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