The idea of term limits for executive staff leaders in nonprofit organizations came up in a LinkedIn group. It's a provocative concept, one that incited a range of comments and got me to thinking.
For the most part, nonprofits take for granted that board governance should specify term limits for its member and officers. There's more than ample evidence that organizations without board term limits eventually experience problems: stagnating board involvement, decreasing vitality and innovation, and, in some cases, a leadership strangle-hold by a few individuals.
But should terms apply to executive staff positions as well? The idea was considered radical and to some, threatening, and I can understand why. One person explained that in smaller communities where the pool of qualified candidates is small, it would be onerous and even risky to the nonprofit's health and stability to observe staff terms. Another suggested that he saw no reason for terms if the executive was still performing well. Others felt it was in some way insulting to a professional to assume prescribe his/her tenure.
As I considered the proposition, I realized that a leadership staff lifecycle occurs organically in all organizations. In other words, all nonprofits at some point outgrow their leadership staff and need to address this eventuality. Some address it more directly and strategically, others - tragically - only when the situation has become dire. In fact, consultants are often called in to help in just these situations.
Organizations that are attune to the signs of staff leadership "terms" expiring, consider and plan for leadership succession as part of their strategic planning and executive leadership evaluation processes. Those organizations that are not explicitly attune, will instead be faced with the symptoms of leadership that is "beyond its expiration date," such as declining mission relevance, morale issues, financial problems, etc. The more aware organizations are that all things have a lifecycle - boards, staff, the nonprofit organization as a whole - the better they can prepare for change.
For example, the most challenging leadership transition in any organization is from the founder to the organization's first executive leader after the founder. This transition comes for all organizaitons, and yet, too often, it's left unspoken until things turn for the worse. This is because few organizations are able to overcome the emotionality surrounding the transition, least of all the founders themselves. And yet, this transition is a critical one for organizations to foresee and prepare for well in advance. Just having the conversation makes a huge difference.
But, while I find the concept of leadership staff terms useful, I think that may be too prescriptive a solution given the huge range of circumstances in nonprofit organizations. One organization's appropriate executive leadership tenure will be another's stagnating yoke and yet another's "blink and you missed it" time period. For example, a mature and stable organization will likely be benefitted by longer terms for their executives than younger organizations that are growing and changing rapidly. The bell weather then for when leadership should turn over has everything to do wtih what the nonprofit currently requires - and less to do with an arbitrary number of years.
So, instead of prescriptive term limits for executives, I endorse that nonprofit organizations build into their planning and evaluation processes explicit conversations about this issue - and this should apply to all major executive staff, from executive director to development director, adminstrators, CFOs and program directors. Evaluation processes for these positions should be developed with criteria defined to drive optimal performance by the nonprofit - this too will change over time, and so must the evaluation process and criteria for each executive position. Bringing aboard all executive staff with full awareness of the nonprofit's values and process around leadership succession will make clear that leadership lifecycle is a reality, not personal to them, and the nonprofit is proactive in defining how it will address such predictable aspects of its business.
The biggest problem in the area of leadership succession is that too many nonprofits just plain get comfortable when things are working well - the "don't rock the boat" mentality kicks in. Perhaps setting term limits would help ensure this doesn't happen. But even better is remembering that the only constant is change and having as the nonprofit's standard procedure being prepared for those changes that are predictable. Executive staff turnover is one. Not only does it make sense to plan for it, it's one of the smartest ways for the nonprofit to avoid highly charged, disruptive, and, at worst, litigious situations.