CEO Log Part 3: Nonprofit Leadership Transitions
Searching for new leadership for APCH…
by Jonathan Zeichner, CEO of A Place Called Home
“No one owns a nonprofit organization. The CEO is the primary guardian, champion and leader who rallies all the other stakeholders, but a healthy, mission-driven nonprofit has a life and even a “mind” of its own. When making major decisions for the organization, I always ask… “What does APCH want?” – Jonathan Zeichner
Stardate: 2022.5.16 Days to Transition: 45ish CEO Search: Ongoing
In Part One of this 4-part series I covered some of my reasons for leaving A Place Called Home and the job I love. In Part Two I wrote about why leadership change is healthy and necessary, and I invited four guest contributors to address sector dysfunctions around leadership transition. In this installment, I will touch on logistics and internal dynamics around change, and the often complex process of finding a new CEO.
But, first, let’s celebrate!
In March, 2022, exactly two years after the pandemic forced us into hybrid operations and we suspended in-person program operations, APCH opened its doors to welcome the youth and families we serve back to our beautiful campus!
What a wonderful feeling to hear laughter and conversation in the halls and to see growing numbers of young people crossing our threshold every day to connect with each other and the staff – it’s like a continuous family reunion! In no time, we are back to doing what we do best! And, we’re growing!
The pandemic illuminated numerous inequities–including the digital divide in South Central, which showed up as a major obstacle for many of our members as we pivoted to online programming. On my way out, we are investing heavily in our staff, as well as building out APCH’s technology capacity (https://apch.org/tech-transformation/)–equipping and providing access for our constituents to bridge this divide.
I’m so glad that we got back to campus before my departure, for many reasons, including that we are in the middle of our search, and finding a new CEO via zoom just doesn’t seem right at all!
Move, but don’t move the way fear makes you move. – Rumi
Change is dynamic, expansive, exciting, and necessary, but it can also scare people to the bone. Human nature is hardwired to protect the status quo. You say “change is coming” and some people hear “threat of loss.” In the case of a CEO transition, we’ve talked about funders’ apprehensions already, but there can also be fear at the staff level around diminishment of access to the CEO, interruption of career momentum, reduction of autonomy, etc. And, if an organization’s vision, mission and methods are not solidified or the leadership bench or board of directors are unfocused, a new CEO could shake things up considerably – and, while APCH is in a strong, focused place with steady momentum, in some organizations a shakeup is exactly what’s called for. Bottom line: change may stimulate some unanticipated reactions and ultimately may not work for everyone. But, none of these are reasons not to do it.
I am keeping all this in mind as we navigate toward my transition. Our tasks during this sensitive time include providing steady support for the leadership team and existing staff, figuring out where to recede more into the background, and how to lay track for my successor to get the full picture and integrate relatively quickly so the organization doesn’t lose momentum. As usual, I find that transparency, objectivity, and optimism are key components in maintaining equilibrium. This isn’t the first leadership change ever and it won’t be the last. There will be challenges, and we’ll all get through it.
The Search Continues!
The word is out and our Search Committee and the firm we engaged to help are reviewing applications and interviewing qualified candidates. I’m not involved and won’t be until we get to the finalists, but I hear we’ve got some strong aspirants. We’re slightly behind where I thought we’d be in mid-May, but this is way too important to rush, and I have given the board my commitment to stay on until the new CEO is in the saddle.
The thing about these searches is that there are the moving parts you can control and the ones you can’t. I’m finding that a lot of peer nonprofits are either anticipating or experiencing leadership transitions, so I hope this blog can offer insights around some of the key questions we’ve been encountering along the way:
- To retain a search firm or not? Pros: they’re experts, they will actively (and discreetly) recruit, they will handle scheduling and admin; Cons: the cost is up to 1/3 of the annual salary for the position. We retained Envision Consulting, and I think they’re doing a really great job… but, ask me again in six months.
- Who should be on the Search Committee? The board chair and 3-5 other board members, including a mix of tenure levels and other diversity. Everyone needs to know that the search will involve a substantial time commitment. If committee members miss interviews, it gets harder to make informed comparisons. Our committee includes an APCH alum, who definitely brings a different perspective from the other board members, which I love.
- Is there a strong internal candidate(s)? If yes, there will need to be serious consideration given. I’ve seen cases where a board opts to make the hire internally and forgo doing a search at all. In our case, the board announced upfront that it wanted to meet a diverse group of candidates and would welcome both internal and external applicants into a rigorous search process.
- Which staff should be included in the process, and how? Our search firm conducted a town hall for all employees and administered a survey for them to identify the important qualities they’d like to see in the next CEO. Additionally, senior management gave more specific input via surveys, and the search firm will facilitate separate meet & greets between the senior staff as a group and the final two candidates, and senior staff will share notes back for the Search Committee’s consideration.
- My final two cents? I will spend an hour or so, 1:1, with each of the two finalists, then make my recommendation to the committee. After which, I will step away and trust that the committee will make the best decision. Whether it is the right decision or not is something we won’t know for another year.
No one owns a nonprofit organization. The CEO is the primary guardian, champion and leader who rallies all the other stakeholders, but a healthy, mission-driven nonprofit has a life and even a “mind” of its own. When making major decisions for the organization, I always ask… “What does APCH want?”
Stay tuned – hopefully the next installment of this series will contain the answer to that question in the form of an introduction to the new CEO for A Place Called Home!
I’ll leave you with this thought about what makes for a durable nonprofit: Consider the possibility that when Darwin wrote about “survival of the fittest,” what he was talking about was not dominance by the ones that are the most fit, but the survival and ongoing presence of the ones that fit the most. E.g. the nonprofits that will survive and thrive in the uncertain times ahead are the ones that are best able to respond and adapt to the evolving needs of their constituency and the environment.
See you next time.
Changing the world starts at home.
If you’re reading this you’re likely already a member of our APCH extended family and you are aware of the upcoming transition of our beloved CEO Jonathan Zeichner. What you may not know is that Jonathan’s departure from APCH is one of dozens of important leadership transitions that will impact the Los Angeles nonprofit sector over the next several years.
True to APCH’s commitment to transparency as a core value, Jonathan, the Board, and senior staff have spent a year engaged in conversations and planning for leadership transition in alignment with our mission, and have partnered with colleagues and advisors to determine what APCH will need to continue thriving into its next chapter. It has been a wholehearted effort that will continue in the hands of the new CEO, senior management team and Board.
As part of this open process, we have created this space for our leadership, beginning with Jonathan, to speak directly to our community.