Successfully Navigating an Executive Director Transition

C.J. Hirschfield - Blue Avocado

Children’s Fairyland is the nation’s first storybook theme park; definitely not your typical nonprofit. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when the park’s executive director said to me, her replacement, as she handed over the keys to the kingdom, “Thank God Coco didn’t die on my watch.” Coco was the park’s sweet old pony, beloved by many generations of kids. Her passing would definitely be big news in Oakland. Well, Coco did eventually expire, after a happy retirement in the country. But I vowed that our next E.D. wouldn’t have to step into the fear of impending doom, but instead would feel supported, encouraged, and valued from day one. A happily ever after, if you will.

Flash forward: after 17 amazing years at the helm of Fairyland it was time for me to move on, but there were lots of moving parts to coordinate. We have eight acres of park, a café, a gift shop, rides, and of course, animals—a lot to manage. Lucky for me, I found TSNE MissionWorks’ cohort program, What’s Next: Leading a Thriving Transition, which supports long-time leaders to “prepare their organizations and themselves for their departure and ensure ongoing sustainability.”

I learned some helpful best practices from experts and found that the critical elements to a successful E.D. transition include paying careful attention to how to inform your board, staff, media, and the community; how to conduct a search; events to say goodbye and hello; and how to document key contacts. The retreat also dealt with the personal issues that might surface during this time of dramatic change.

Now, 11 months after my transition formally began, and with Fairyland’s fabulous new E.D. in place, I can say with pride that I think we did it right! There were five things that led to my successful, graceful departure and set the nonprofit up for success moving forward:

Clear Communication and Planning

After attending the retreat I felt completely prepared and it was time to inform my board president of my intentions. Fortunately, Theresa Nelson is a seasoned nonprofit consultant who has managed many transitions—and even served as an interim E.D. Over wine, I outlined my game plan, with a detailed timetable included. Having a well-thought-out course of action from the get-go made a big difference in calming fears, particularly when the board and staff were brought into the discussion.

Creating a Transition Team

The creation of a stellar transition team is critical to a successful process. I was able to provide input regarding the selection, but was not a member of the team myself. Ours included a diverse subgroup of board members—two former board members with extraordinary institutional memory, as well as our development director, who served as the staff representative. “I feel fortunate that it went smoothly and think this was in large part the result of a lot of time spent by people who care deeply about the organization,” said my Board Chair when it was all over.

Although not on the team, I was still consulted as they homed in on the final candidates.

Conducting the Search

The board hired Donna Davidson as its executive recruiter and she took the time to really get to know Children’s Fairyland and all that we do. Although on the surface we’re a delightful park for small children, we’re also a community center for early childhood literacy, welcoming over 16,000 underserved kids each year with free or subsidized admission. We’ve become successful in using our sweet park and its programs to serve kids and families who’ve experienced trauma and intend to expand these offerings.

The key to success was that our recruiter took the time to get to know us, discovering it was important to us to have not only a highly professional and accomplished leader, but one who would be inspired by our broader mission to serve all of “our” kids.

Included in the “What’s Next” workshop was three hours of consulting time with their transition experts. One of them teleconferenced in during a board meeting, where she outlined best practices for onboarding a new leader, helping board members feel comfortable they were on the right path. Whatever form it takes, take advantage of professional and pro bono help to approach your search mindfully and expand your network or candidates.

Preparing to Transition

While the search was in progress, I was hard at work myself, using templates to document all of the significant contacts that our organization maintains: insurers, banks, point-of-sale consultants, IT contractors, veterinarians, restaurant suppliers, and more.

Since Fairyland’s property is owned by the City of Oakland, it was even more critical for the incoming E.D. to be aware of all of the “whos”—municipal contacts that would be key to ensuring a smooth operation. This list included public works, park and rec, police, but also the members of the city council, their staffs, and community partners who are critical to our success. I also put together an annual calendar of events and a list of “unfinished business” that included a legal issue and an important contract that was nearly completed.

Eighty-nine people applied for my job, and again I have to acknowledge the incredible time and talent our transition team brought to the process. One candidate stood out from the rest, and the team brought in Kymberly Miller to meet with me, and separately with the board and staff, before the final decision was made. Take the time to coordinate multiple interviews with top candidates to ensure buy in and increase the chance of someone spotting any potential problems. We all agreed that she was the perfect person to lead the organization, with her years of youth development and event production experience, coupled with a heartfelt enthusiasm for the cause.

Turning Over Power

Once Kymberly accepted the offer, I had much more to do. There would be a two-week overlap, and the “What’s Next” experts advised that I should completely clear out of the office by her arrival, working from a laptop at our conference table. From their first day, your new E.D. should be in charge; I was only be there in an advisory capacity. We took the opportunity to do a deep cleaning and repainting of the office, and asked Kymberly what color she’d like for the accent wall. “Mardi Gras Yellow” it was.

The day finally arrived, and the info download began. I appreciated the fact that Kymberly was very direct with her questions; I could be equally direct with my answers. As part of your new E.D.’s orientation, be sure to cover historic successes and failures, organizational culture, and outstanding issues, along with anything else that may prove helpful. And making the transition public demonstrates your confidence in and comfort with the new leader; I introduced her at two meetings with our biggest supporters, where she was warmly welcomed.

From digging in on the major processes for the organization, like admissions, restoration, or general park operations to relationship development with the donors, visitors, and the city—it was invaluable to have some documentation to inherit, and introductions to key stakeholders facilitated,” she says.

Best practice is to produce one goodbye event for the outgoing E.D. and a later event for the incoming leader. My going away party was fabulous, and we used it as an opportunity to raise over $120,000 for the cause!

Kymberly and I decided that we’d have a check-in over coffee in a couple of months just to see how things were going. I learned in my seminar that outgoing E.D.s should not remain on the board or staff, but by informally making themselves available can provide critical support, especially in the new leader’s early days. And if you’re able to line up any coaching or consulting support when they first dive in, that’s also helpful; Kymberly enjoyed sessions with a TSNE consultant, especially since this is her first time as an E.D.

Leaving an organization and the wonderful people who’ve been part of my life for so many years is tough, but also exciting. I am able to leave happy, knowing that, because of our thoughtful transition process, we’ve done everything possible to ensure the ongoing success of our wonderful nonprofit.

And instead of the specter of a dead pony, Kymberly instead has a “Mardi Gras Yellow” view that’s reflective of Fairyland’s bright future under her leadership.

For more information, go toWhat’s Next: Leading a Thriving Transition

CJ Hirschfield Successful Executive Director TransitionC.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, the historic storybook theme park, following a distinguished, 20-year career as an executive in the cable television industry. In 2016, Fairyland received the Oakland Chamber of Commerce’s “Heart of Oakland Award” for the positive change the park’s programs have made in the community, and she personally has received commendations from both the City of Oakland and the State of California honoring her work. C.J. has written weekly columns and film reviews for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She holds a degree in Communications from Stanford University, and lives in Oakland with her husband, David Stein.

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