After 20 years of successful leadership by charismatic founder Christa Gannon, Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) underwent a leadership transition in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and social turbulence on a national scale. FLY’s transition took hard work but, by all accounts, went nearly without a hitch. In Part Three of our series on FLY, we get a “board’s-eye-view” of how FLY’s leadership, Gannon (FLY's outgoing CEO) and Ali Knight (FLY's new CEO), and FLY’s board, represented by Board Chair Mark Donnelly and Board Vice Chair June Wang, made choices that created a smooth transition. (See Part One and Part Two of the series.)

Their suggestions focused on the benefits to be gained from 1) adopting a leadership development mindset, 2) engaging the board early on in the process, 3) creating a task force to lead the process, and 4) considering ways to keep the founder engaged without undermining the new leader.

Adopt a leadership development mindset
Long before Gannon’s decision to step down from the CEO role, FLY and its board had a commitment to leadership development that made it easier for them to determine a transition strategy.

Engage the board early on
Boards generally don’t love surprises, especially those involving the stepping down of their agency’s charismatic founder.

Create a transition task force
“In the for-profit sector, the companies I worked for never created leadership transition task forces. We just hired a leader, restructured, and moved on. It was often painful,” says Donnelly. “So, all I have to say is whenever you do a transition—whether it’s to replace a founder or long-standing CEO or somebody who just up and left—always, always create a CEO transition task force!” Donnelly says the creation of such a team proved critical to FLY’s transition, both in terms of workload for board members and for aligning internal and external stakeholders behind Knight.

Consider ways to keep your founder engaged
If your founder truly wants to ride off into the sunset, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. And the last thing a new CEO or executive director wants is a founder looking over their shoulder. However, Bridgespan research has shown that founders who choose to stay on board for a limited and bounded period of time can have a beneficial impact on a transition’s success.

Deepen your bench as an organizational practice
It says everything about FLY that the board’s final charge to Knight before he formally took the reins was to have him draw up his own succession plan. “We told Ali that the transition wasn’t completed until he had his own plan in place,” Donnelly says.

Read the full article about supporting a leadership transition by Dave Moore at The Bridgespan Group.