Voices from the Third Sector

Tag-teaming Leadership Transitions

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Whether we are talking about board members or presidents, organizations with mandatory term limits for non-executive leaders face significant challenges in dealing with senior turnover that brings new personalities and different leadership perspectives to organizational management. How can nonprofits adapt to these frequent changes in governance without disrupting their momentum and continuing their mission?


Leadership transitions in our organization are challenging, certainly in terms of structure and governance as well as legacy. The Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI) is the umbrella organization for 291 independent Junior Leagues. In aggregate, the Leagues encompass some 150,000 individual members in different phases of their volunteer lifecycle. All but the largest Leagues typically lack paid staff and have leaders subject to one-year terms. Because our Leagues are located in four countries, intense focus and organization is needed to maintain effective communications among board members and leaders. Add to that mix the ongoing need to challenge and involve board leaders who are themselves volunteers, often with full-time jobs, drawn from (and elected by) member Leagues.


While managing turnover at the board level is a recurring challenge for any nonprofit, our turnover in board leadership (both at the association level and at the League level) is actually much greater than at many other nonprofits, particularly those that have unlimited board terms or even the often-used 3/3/3 board-term rotational structure. Within the association, general board members serve three-year terms; executive committee members (with the exception noted below) serve two-year terms, and governance committee members two-year terms (except the vice-chair who serves one year then sits on the board). The individual Leagues use a rotating three-year turnover with board members, and officers serve for two years with the exception of the president-elect, which is a three year commitment.


But, board turnover aside, it is the AJLI leadership-transition model that has some very real strengths, both in terms of structure and practice, and can serve as a model for other nonprofits with complex operating structures.


Does your transition structure support successful outcomes? At AJLI, an unusual (at least for many other nonprofit organizations) “tag team” approach to achieving successful leadership transitions has proven useful for many years. The president-elect (PE) is elected for a one-year term, after which she automatically succeeds to a two-year term as president, and the second year of each president’s term pairs her with the rising PE. As a result, the PE is effectively incorporated into the senior leadership team in a structured transition that ensures continuity for board leadership and providing the potential – if not the certainty – of strong relationships in the leadership cadre now and in the future.


How does organizational legacy impact your transition management? Managing leadership turnover is tough for any organization, but the goal has to be for the organization to continue to constantly evolve in spite of the turnover. AJLI was formed in 1921 specifically to provide structure and continuity to a rapidly expanding but loose federation of Junior Leagues that typically lacked professional staff. The legacy we share today as an organization is both simple and profound – to provide the resources needed to develop the potential of women as leaders in their communities. While AJLI provides much of the training to accomplish this through our five annual leadership conferences and, more directly, to the base of members through online and through webinars, implementation of League programs and initiatives comes at the League level.


For leadership transitions at the association level, this requires two things. First, ensuring that the capabilities of staff in providing those resources are unimpaired, and that staff and the Executive Director (ED) are adequately supporting the organization’s current activities as well as its future needs. Second, ensuring that any given leadership transition – and any given president – is focused on moving the institutional vision forward, and not simply the personal vision of a president during her two-year term.


Are you using your transition as an opportunity to think about your organization’s future? The leadership transition (however often it occurs) is a great time to stop and think about the future. Do we have the right strategic direction? Does the board understand the organization’s vision and what needs to be done to keep it vital? What is the board doing to communicate that vision across the organization and to outside audiences?


What strengths do you bring to the transition? Because of the size of the organization it represents, as well as the international focus of AJLI, the success of ongoing board leadership relies on a strong ED and staff to ensure institutional memory and relationships among Leagues. At the same time, however, a successful leadership transition is beyond the control of the staff. This requires a strong, process-driven collaboration between the outgoing and incoming presidents that is critical in maintaining its organizational mandate and momentum while still providing space for a renewed leadership vision. At one level, this is a matter of managing relationships among the board and the two senior leaders but, at another, it requires bringing experience they gained in professional and other nonprofit board work to the table. Carol, for example, applies what she has learned as a nonprofit fundraising expert who has run and grown three regional children’s museums while Ellen is a successful Wall Street executive with extensive experience as a nonprofit board leader.


We wish to emphasize that this is a model that, while developed and implemented over decades at AJLI, may not fit the needs of many nonprofits. But we do believe that the key elements of the model – transition structure, consideration for the future and the desire to instill collaboration into the entire transition process – does.


About the Authors:

Ellen Rose, President of The Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI), is a Managing Director at Fiduciary Trust Company International in New York City. Throughout her volunteer career, Ellen has built a reputation for leading and motivating others, most recently chairing the board of the US Association for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was a 2013 recipient of the Wall Street Women of Excellence Award given by Traders Magazine and a 2014 recipient of the National Council of Jewish Women – New York Chapter Women Who Dared Award.


Carol Scott, President-Elect of AJLI, is the CEO of the Children’s Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage California.  She is a consultant and trainer to nonprofits and is the past President/CEO of The Children’s Museum of the Upstate South Carolina and Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, leading both organizations in development of program and new facilities. Carol has served on numerous nonprofit boards and currently serves on the Board of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.