A Board Member’s Perspective on our Executive Leadership Transition
This blog is a part of our monthly Board Member series.
YNPN National was excited to share last month the great news that our Interim Co-Executive Director, Jamie Smith, will take the reins in January 2017 as the next Executive Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.
Over the last 2 years, YNPN has engaged in a thoughtful process to find our next leader, and many YNPN members and friends have followed our leadership transition along with us. We appreciate your support, encouragement, and investment in making this transition a positive one.
We want to take a moment to explain to our network and partners how we arrived at this decision and what lessons we learned along the way.
YNPN Values & Principles
Our Theory of Change states that to build a diverse and powerful social sector, we need activated leaders who are thoughtful and effective changemakers, who bring creativity to solving our communities' most intractable social problems, and who understand the power dynamics and systemic and historical context in which they are trying to make change. Our Theory of Change also states that it is important to activate the next generation of leaders by providing support and training to elevate leaders from places we might not normally look (like within an organization's own staff).
Through our leadership transition, the YNPN National Board was guided by the principles of our Theory of Change, in particular the principles of modeling the practices we want to see in the sector, of making data-driven decisions, of setting a vision and articulating standards for our work, and of raising the visibility of the network as a whole. As we evaluated and then re-evaluated our leadership needs, the YNPN National Board let our values drive our decision-making process even when it wasn't popular or easy to do so.
Looking Back: A Leadership Journey
In January 2015, our first National Director Trish Tchume let us know that she would be stepping down from her role as ED in December 2015. Succession planning is a healthy practice for a nonprofit, and the Board worked closely with Trish to plan a leadership transition that would be healthy and sustainable for YNPN. The Board created a thoughtful job description, timeline, and plan to conduct a national search for our next Executive Director. We received over 80 impressive applications from around the country, and we interviewed dozens of people via the phone and in person.
Meanwhile, Trish continued to work with the staff and Board on an aggressive strategic plan that included growth in many of our focus areas like migrating to NationBuilder, developing an Affiliation Agreement for Chapters to sign, focusing on National Voice work, and fundraising to support our expansion and growth. Between the time that the ED job description was created in the winter/spring and when we found ourselves interviewing candidates the next fall, what we needed in an Executive Director had changed.
"The candidates we interviewed through our search were amazingly impressive in their poise, experience, and ability to lead. But we realized we weren't even sure what kind of leadership model YNPN needed to move into the future."
Was a single Executive Director model the right one for us? Trish had done a great job as a single ED, but could someone new fill her large shoes? Should we explore new models like shared leadership and hire two Co-EDs? As we grappled with saying goodbye to our first National Director, who had been with the organization for nearly a decade, we realized we needed to take a step back and evaluate where we were and where we wanted to be, then re-launch a hiring process after we gained clarity through reflection.
Because Trish's departure was imminent, we acted fast and asked a National Board member and a National Staff member to step up for one year to be interim co-directors. We thought that we could pilot the co-leadership model for a year and evaluate what we thought of sharing leadership between multiple people. We engaged the membership of YNPN through "Think Tanks" and Chapter Congress conversations, and we signed our Affiliation Agreement and set a more concrete direction for YNPN over the next few years. Jamie Smith and Amber Cruz Mohring confidently led YNPN through a year of transition on a path of radical transparency.
In August the YNPN National Board met to evaluate our eight month experiment with co-leadership and to finalize our strategy for finding our next Executive Director. Going into the day, we all thought that we would be coming out with an Executive Director job description (or co-ED job description) and a plan and timeline for how to move forward with the national search.
We grappled with what kind of Executive Director we needed to continue to move YNPN forward in accomplishing our mission, in supporting our network and chapters around the country, and in helping drive forward our ideas. Did we need someone who could help us propel our fundraising forward? Or someone who could bring major visibility to the network? Or someone who had experience operating a membership organization? Or did we need someone who was closer to the YNPN work?
Looking Forward: Our Next Executive Director
As we explored these questions in the context of our values and our history, the direction we needed to go in started to emerge. We knew we needed to model the practices we want to see in the sector and elevate emerging talent. We needed to stay true to our roots and build on our collaborative, grassroots history. We needed to be radically transparent with our network and involve our members in co-creating the future of YNPN.
And then the choice became clear to us. Jamie Smith, at the time our Director of Communications and Network Engagement, had applied to be the ED in our first national search process. While Jamie cared deeply about our work, had worked closely with Trish, and made significant contributions to our key projects, we had decided to pursue other candidates because we weren't sure Jamie had experience in all the areas we believed we needed for our next ED. When we didn't select a new Executive Director from that search process, Jamie stepped up and happily agreed to be an interim Co-ED for a year so she could grow her leadership capacity and step in and help at a time when YNPN was in transition. When we started planning for a new national ED search, we were reminded how committed to this network Jamie was and how many ideas she had for the future of YNPN.
"We had this passionate, capable, knowledgeable, radically transparent leader right here in our midst. Jamie had stepped up to lead whenever we needed her and had shown an unwavering dedication to YNPN's mission and the network as a whole."
The board could have spent the last four months of 2016 investing our time and YNPN's precious financial resources in a national search. Instead, we chose to elevate a committed, passionate, competent leader to be the next Executive Director of YNPN and focus the last four months of 2016 on building our network, raising our national voice, and practicing radical transparency with our network.
Jamie's vision for YNPN is clear: she wants to engage the network in co-creating the future of YNPN together. She is here to collaborate with our chapters and members, to lead transparently and to lift the voices of our entire network so that we can build a more diverse and powerful social sector together.
Brandi Tuck is the Co-Chair of the YNPN Board Executive Search Committee and Executive Director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS), a nonprofit social service agency that empowers homeless families to get back into housing and to stay there long-term. Before coming to PHFS, Brandi attended the University of Florida (Go Gators!) and has degrees in Political Science & Philosophy as well as a minor in Organizational Leadership for Nonprofits. Read more about Brandi here.