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An unexpected resignation from a nonprofit CEO gives ‘shock and awe’ a brand new meaning. But it happens all the time. Leaders who have been at the helm of an organization anywhere from 6 months to several decades might suddenly need to resign for personal or professional reasons. If this were to happen at your organization, would you be prepared for that ‘shock and awe’ moment whether intentional or unforeseen?

There is a lot at stake when a CEO either voluntary or involuntarily resigns. Not only is the public watching, but funders, staff, other stakeholders and constituents are as well. Strategically maneuvering through a contingency plan, particularly if you don’t already have one in place, can be tricky.

First order of business: don’t panic

The board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the organization is not placed in any unnecessary risk until a new CEO is identified. Some boards might even be lucky enough to have a few members that will “raise their hand” and volunteer to serve in an interim capacity. With this in mind, having up-to-date board member profiles and/or resumes on each member will be extremely useful. Also, begin thinking about internal executive talent that is ready to step up to keep the critical work moving forward. The organization’s human resources professional or consultancy will be an invaluable partner throughout the process. S/he can help identify executive team leaders that have demonstrated competencies, credibility and confidence to lead during a time of transition.

Second order of business: control communication

Control both internal and external communication. In the absence of a succession or transition plan, transparency and timely communication will be critical. You want to get the messaging correct. Be strategic and forward thinking in your approach. Keep it simple. The internal message will help control rumors and amplify the main points you want heard. You also have an opportunity to call an emergency town hall format staff meeting, if necessary, so all employees hear the same message at the same time and have an opportunity to ask questions in an open forum. Though you might be nervous about what they’ll ask, you do want them to raise questions! It shows that they’re engaged. Let employees be your communication ambassadors. This will not only help with transparency, but will control how the story is shared and repeated.

Third order of business: plan to build a succession plan in the future

Now is not the time to work on a succession or transition plan, but earmark the experience as a first order of business for your new executive. While there are many resources available to organizations, like consultants to research to software tools, don’t allow an executive resignation force you into creating a plan that is not strategically designed.

The future of your organization is at stake during times of transition. Without the right leadership and a lack of funding to invest in the development of a succession plan it will suffocate during and after an executive resignation.

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