Retirement had always seemed a long way off to Joe Dziobek, who ran the Lincoln-based Fellowship Health Resources Inc., for 29 years. His long-time mantra was, “I’ll know when the time is right.”
About a year ago, that time had indeed come, but he also knew, because Fellowship had a succession plan in place, that informing his board of directors would lead to review of two highly qualified internal candidates and, ultimately, selection of his successor, Debra Paul.
What he and the organization were less certain of, and had to find out by tapping into the expertise of a board member experienced with recruiting, was how to make the process “seamless,” so that when all was said and done, the transition would seem like nothing more than “business as usual.”
The principles of succession planning for longstanding top executives who retire are strikingly similar for nonprofits and for-profit organizations, but at nonprofits such as Fellowship, the longevity of those recently retiring leaders called for transition plans, as well.
Identifying internal candidates well in advance of an actual change at the top and getting enough lead time from the outgoing executive are keys to a healthy hiring process, said Alan Wichlei, co-founder of FHR’s first halfway house, board member and a partner at the civic-recruiting firm Isaacson, Miller of Boston. With both of those considerations in place, Wichlei said he was able to recommend an internal, as opposed to an external or combined, search.
“I talked with the executive committee and helped them understand the costs of doing a big, national search,” Wichlei said. “In my view, if you’ve got good internal candidates, it is more desirable to cultivate them in most situations, because the transition becomes smoother: You know these people. They know the organization, and you can take the time to pave the way.”
Asking confidentially if the board believed those internal candidates were ready was the next step, along with explaining the cost of time, money and energy to do an external search.
“If the organization doesn’t fully agree [on candidates] there can be some damage to morale,” he said. “It also can be hard to recruit the very best from the outside if they know there’s a strong internal candidate.”
Likewise, at the nonprofit Chorus of Westerly, George Kent had 53 years in before he retired in 2012 as music director, so Executive Director Ryan Saunders worked with then-president Deborah Dunham and the board of directors to come up with an approach for the search. But the question had been posed so often, “What will you do when George retires?” Saunders said, that the organization had “about six different succession plans in place.