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Leading through Transition

Nonprofit leadership matters, but successful leadership transition can be particularly challenging in a sector that prioritizes program delivery over management, where a miniscule overhead is considered a measure of success.

When a nonprofit leader leaves, a wealth of institutional knowledge walks out with them; it takes a strong, intentional leader and a board that recognizes the importance of a mindful transition to fill the gap. GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group, led by Cindy Cheatham, works with boards and leaders in transition with a full set of executive transition management services.

Cheatham recently spoke with three new CEOs at GCN member organizations to find out what the process looks like from the inside. One year ago at MUST Ministries, the Rev. Dr. Ike Reighard was picked to replace the Rev. John R. Moeller Jr., who had served as CEO at MUST for more than 10 years. At Atlanta Center for Self-Sufficiency, Dana Johnson stepped in as president and CEO after helping oversee (first as director of development and marketing, then as vice president of development, finance and administration) its formation through the merger of two independent organizations, Samaritan House of Atlanta and the Atlanta Enterprise Center. Woodruff Art Center’s new CEO Virginia Hepner, meanwhile, left a 25-year career in banking to take over at the massive arts organization, where she was immediately confronted with a high-profile embezzlement scandal.

Here’s what we found out.

Dr. Ike Reighard, President of MUST Ministries, Senior Pastor of Piedmont Church

Time on the job: One year

Formerly: Senior Pastor at Northstar Church

Big issues: Learning about a new organization, engaging with outside stakeholders, rallying a decentralized team


What’s it like stepping into the position of CEO?

I wanted to get my feet on the ground in year one. You don’t want to rush in and just start changing things. It’s the old Robert Frost: “Before you take a fence down, you might want to find out why they put it up.” You get a honeymoon in year one, and then people are going, “Exactly why are you doing what you’re doing?”

“I say the first job of any leader is to define reality. Not what you hope it’s going to be, or what you wish for, but seriously where are we right now.”
— Dr. Ike Reighard

I think the best way you can ever replace a great leader is to be one yourself. And that means you’ve got to do a lot of studying of the situation, you’ve got to get to know the people who are in the organization. What are their strengths? Do you have people slotted in the right positions?

I say the first job of any leader is to define reality. Not what you hope it’s going to be or what you wish for, but seriously where are we right now. You’re not going to meet all the needs. You have to ask yourself, “What is success for us?” One of the most difficult things in this job role is trying to figure out what success looks like.

How did you go about understanding your organization’s needs?

When I came into the organization, I had two questions that I would ask people, whether I would run into a volunteer in the hallway or if I was sitting with a team of ten. The first was: If there’s one thing that you hope would never get changed here, what would that one thing be? The overwhelming statement here was, “Please don’t let us lose the idea of being a ministry.” And it was more than just a religious connotation, what they were really saying was, “Don’t become so professional that you lose your compassion.” And the second question was: If there’s one thing you would say please, for the love of God, get this changed, what would it be?

Overwhelmingly here, as it probably is with a lot of nonprofits, it was to get the technology fixed. The computer infrastructure was so weak and crumbling that we couldn’t take care of people in a timely fashion.

What resources have you relied on in your transition?

I would highly recommend that people get familiar with GCN, because you guys have been a great touchstone for me. I’m now involved in your Peerspectives group, that’s going to be extremely beneficial for me because I’m going to be around other people who are experiencing similar frustrations, or who may have just had a breakthrough solution for something that’s a frustration to me right now.

I use BoardSource, which really helps me relate to our board, in particular in the area of governance. I’ve never put together a board quite the way a board works in a nonprofit.

If you had your first year to do over, what would you have done differently?

One of the biggest things is learning how to communicate within your organization. [Another] is to raise your hand if you step into a new role and you’re having difficulty, reach out to peers, the organizations like GCN, and say, I need some help. It’s not anything to be ashamed of, that you’re coming into something brand new, and having council and wisdom from others is absolutely key.

One of the things that I did to try to help myself, I instituted something that is like a Former Chairman’s Club. I went back and gathered up seven or eight former chairs of the board here at MUST, and I’m going to have a periodic breakfast with them to say, give me some feedback on this idea, tell me how you think this would this work for us. I’m trying to tap into that wisdom that’s been operating at the highest level in the org, and not to lose it.

Dana Johnson, CEO of Atlanta Center for Self-Sufficiency (ACSS)

Time on the job: 15 days

Formerly: Vice President of Development, Finance & Administration, at ACSS

Big issues: Shifting from comrade to commander, merging cultures, inspiring staff


What’s it like being on the inside and stepping in to the position of CEO?

I think it was sort of a relief for our staff that the board selected someone internal. Because we had gone through another very significant transition just two years ago [when Samaritan House of Atlanta and Atlanta Enterprise Center merged to form ACSS], I think it would have been really hard for the staff to embrace a new leader who came in from the outside. And I actually think it’s helped other staff think about how they can progress in their own profession, to see that someone who started within the organization has been able to work their way up. But it’s tricky when you have been with the agency for a while, and now you’re in a new role with so much responsibility. I’m really thankful that I had the opportunity to be involved with so many aspects of the organization prior to taking on this role, so I haven’t been hit with many surprises. I had a good sense of the organization and the structure and our outcomes. But it’s really important to make sure I don’t assume that I know all the answers, to really get an opportunity to meet with staff and board members and get their perspective, and try to create some practical goals that we can work on.

“It’s really important to make sure I don’t assume that I know all the answers, to really get an opportunity to meet with staff and board members and get their perspective.”
— Dana Johnson

I think my transition with our board of directors may be more challenging, because they’ve seen me in much more of an operational role for the last two years. I think coming to the table now as a thought leader on some of the big issues, it’s going to be a transition for some of the board members who haven’t worked as closely with me.

What resources have you relied on in your transition?

I definitely believe in ongoing professional development. I’m now doing CEO Peerspectives at GCN. Over the summer I did ELPNO, the Executive Leadership Program in Nonprofit Organizations, managed through Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia and Georgia State. That was really helpful in getting out of my box and starting to develop relationships with other leaders, and think about some of the bigger issues that nonprofits are dealing with and how they relate to ours.

You’re very early in this process, but is there anything you’re already thinking you want to do different?

A major lesson from the merger: we sort of went into the process thinking that because we had similar missions, were doing similar work, that our cultures were very similar, and they weren’t. I think being very upfront about those cultural differences really could have saved us some pain on the back end, in terms of how we made changes related to programs, staff, facilities. With this new transition, I plan to engage staff more on the front-end to help identify and solve some of our operational challenges.

Virginia Hepner, President and CEO of Woodruff Arts Center

Time on the job: 7 months

Formerly: Executive Vice President, Head of U.S. Corporate Finance, at Wachovia

Big issues: Communication, handling surprises


What’s it like stepping into the position of CEO?

Leadership is really about managing change. So I think it’s really important to show respect for people who are in the field that you come into, and then make sure they understand quickly what you view as the important issues, and have agreement on priorities. It’s really important to listen, and to really do the basic stakeholder analysis, to be cognizant of all the stakeholders in the entity. Particularly at the Woodruff Center, these are people who have deep expertise, passion, and a commitment to excellence.

“It’s important to be very mission-centric and help people understand that, in every action, we should display why we’re here.”
– Virginia Hepner

I share frequently that I am here for two reasons. One: I truly value what they do. The mission is important to me. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be in the job. Because it’s too hard, frankly. I view it as a gift that I get to be here, but it’s also challenging. Then the second thing I say: I’m also here because people in the community I really respect asked me to do it. Perhaps a lot of different types of people could do this job, and I learned a long time ago that everybody’s replaceable. I share that I don’t have any goal other than to bring more resources to what you are trying to do. Sometimes that’s going to be manifested in a way to reduce our costs, or a better way to make the case for what you do, or a way to work together on things when you may have done them separately. But it’s about positioning them to fulfill the mission. I think it’s important to be very mission-centric and help people understand that, in every action, we should display why we’re here.

You’ve had some surprises, especially a very high-profile front page surprise: an employee embezzling some $1.5 million. What did you learn from that?

What I learned from that was the importance of board alignment, how important a great board is. And we could not have better board leadership. There was not a person among them who saw it any different than I did.

I also learned the importance of communication with all those stakeholders, just trying to put yourself in their shoes: as a patron, an employee, an artist, a foundation. I think we did as well as one could do in a very complicated situation—because it’s a legal matter, it’s a privacy matter, it’s all these things. Everything I said in public was exactly what I said in private. You have to say the same thing, and of course it has to be true.

It’s very important to be consistent in the facts and in your messaging. It’s really sad to have learned that fraud is a very common issue in corporations and nonprofits. It’s appalling on any level, but it’s about, once discovered, what you do about it.

What resources have you relied on in your transition?

My experience has taught me to recognize that every job is an interim job. Some last a long time—I was at Wachovia for 25 years, but I never planned to be there for 25 years. Every year I would sit down and look backward and assess: “Am I spending my time the way I want to spend it? How well am I balancing things that are important in my life?” Having in my head that everything is an interim job helps me think about what’s important.

I’ve had a lot of great role models, people I observe dealing with challenges, or opportunities—which are really the same thing. There are many smart and capable people here in the nonprofit sector but, and in the arts particularly, many people still think, “Gosh, they don’t know how to manage things.”

I’ve never seen a for-profit business get more out of an investment than artists do—they’re so creative in terms of how they produce what they do with minimal investment.

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