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Managing the Unexpected: CEO Transitions

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I admit that the first thing I think of when I hear the word transition is the scene in “When Harry Met Sally” when Sally freaks out that her ex-boyfriend is marrying his new girlfriend, who was “supposed to be his transitional person.” It is fairly typical for me to find a path from nearly everything to a Nora Ephron movie, and this particular movie serves as a good reminder that transitional plans (and people) can sometimes provide long-term solutions—and, in Sally’s case, a lot of tissue use.

Transition means change – a term that is both scary and exciting at the same time. CEO transitions are especially challenging – and they are also a time when an AMC can help, in the short, medium, and long terms. We have jumped into situations when boards have had to release not only the CEO, but a number of other senior staff members. We have helped associations celebrate the retirement of a longtime CEO, even as we have led the search for, and helped train, a successor. We have helped a board and association mourn the loss of a popular leader while working behind the scenes to migrate financial controls, sponsor relationships, and corporate administration to a trained team.

Oftentimes, a CEO departure will be a catalyst for an association deciding to move into a shared management model, which leaves us leading the search for the next chief staff officer and presenting finalist candidates to a board committee for approval. In fact, last year I worked with board search committees on a number of scenarios, including a CEO retirement that led a stand-alone association to adopt our model, a decision by an executive director within MCI USA to pursue a new opportunity for success (after more than a decade serving one client organization) with an incoming client association, and a start-up association that grew so quickly they needed to bring on a full professional staff team in a matter of weeks.

Leadership transitions can make nonprofit organizations vulnerable to any number of stresses, which can intensify the longer the position remains vacant.

By providing interim senior-level and project management for an association, the AMC model allows the board, remaining staff and leadership tasked with the search process to engage in thoughtful exercises around future focus, overall strategy, and gaps in existing skillsets. I have seen firsthand how our ability to step in with trained, tenured executives has allowed volunteer leaders to exhale a bit, back away from operational issues, and focus on the leadership challenge in front of them. Sometimes we transition the association to a new CEO who works directly for the board and the association; sometimes the association becomes a full-service management client; and other times, we retain the management of a key initiative (awards program, integrated media sales, event management) to allow the CEO to focus on other areas first.

A transition implies a considered length of time involving a plan. As associations contemplate transitions – both expected and unplanned – we take pride in our ability to help advise on the process, identify talent, and take the opportunity to review and assess the way things have always been done – no tissues needed.

Erin Fuller is the president of MCI USA’s association management and consulting division, and she has served as the interim CEO for five associations during her association career.

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