Building Democracies, Not Dictatorships

Building Democracies, Not Dictatorships

Leadership Transition Checklist: Part 1

Jan 31, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

Leaving a role you love, especially as a founder, might be one of the hardest decisions to make but I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be! Over 1.5 years, I navigated transitioning Pollicy to new leadership and now, 6 months after handing over, I can take a deep breath - it turned out better than I could have hoped for! 

It's also incredibly uplifting to receive positive messages like the one below!

Building on my reflections from last March and August, I can now do a retrospective and based on my learnings, create a handy guide for other leaders considering their next moves and transitions. Leadership transitions are clearly about change, but they are also a time for transformation - for individuals and the organisation - and maybe even larger movements.

The Beginning

I knew I would transition out of Pollicy from the day I conceptualised it. When we hit the 5-year mark, the question then became when? As we celebrated our 5th birthday, the time didn’t feel right. Different aspects of the organisation still felt unstable. I worked with a leadership coach for a few months and it was a beautiful therapeutic process. She told me to take some time off and come back to see how I felt. Heeding this advice, I took a sabbatical for 3 months. In that one year, the organisation had grown immensely - the leadership team, operational robustness, board strength, and financial sustainability. Besides, most things functioned smoothly in my absence. 

I felt ready to put a timeline in place. It was now ALL SYSTEMS GO!

Your Checklist

✅ Implement Transferable Systems
✅ Develop a Communication Plan
✅ Seek Organisational Effectiveness Grants
✅ Time the New Strategic Plan (including Stakeholder Research)
✅ Decide on Hiring 'Must-Haves'
✅ Pursue Opportunities for Leadership Growth
✅ Develop Your Approach to a Phased Transition
✅ Share Your Experience (Optional)

Below, I will highlight the steps that I took along the way. I find that most writing on the topic of non-profit or NGO leadership transition tends to be rooted in US-based organisations and while my learnings are not a major deviation, I believe there is space and need to think about transitions within the context of African organisations, especially given funding, human resource, cultural, infrastructure, technological, regulatory and socio-political differences. 

  1. Implement Transferable Systems

    As I’ve already mentioned, whether founding or stepping into a new leadership role, begin with the end. Think about all the things your successor would need to succeed in their role. I wanted Pollicy to be a remote-first organisation and for that to work out, we needed to rely on software that democratised access to information. We picked Slack and WhatsApp for communication, Google Drive for document management, Quickbooks for accounting and Otter for joint notetaking. Based on staff roles, we have different user levels, so that any document they need is always available to them and if all goes well, no one hoards or leaves with vital institutional knowledge. Overall, you would be looking at some combination of the tools listed below.

    Communication Platforms: These are essential for maintaining continuity whether we are working remotely or we are all together at an event or retreat. I’m a fan of Slack, many organisations use Microsoft Teams or you can use open-source tools such as Mattermost
    Document Management
    : Cloud storage ensures that vital information remains accessible to everyone, regardless of location - even if it adds an extra step of scanning and uploading physical documents.
    Financial Management Software
    : Tools like QuickBooks help maintain transparency and financial health during transitions.
    Tracking Systems:
    Over the years, we tried many project management software, but none stuck unfortunately and we would always revert to good ol’ Google Sheets. We use sheets to track our projects, assets, petty cash expenditures, fellowship applications and so on.
    : Documented processes and guidelines help maintain consistency and quality, whether it is for human resources, finances, procurement or team retreats. New hires can dive right in and get a feel for how things are done. 

  2. Develop a Communication Plan

    A well-structured and timed communication plan is key!

    To announce the upcoming changes, we went in this order:
    i. Board and Directors: I first announced my departure in our board meeting.
    ii. Team Members: Very soon after, I informed my colleagues in our weekly team-wide meeting
    iii. Key Donors: We informed key donors to maintain trust and transparency.
    iv. General Public: I publicly shared via our social media and newsletter that I would be stepping down, a brief version of the transition plan, and opened a rolling call for the next Executive Director.

    One of the challenges we ran into was how to communicate the timeline. Because we decided to hire on a rolling basis, there was no clear timeline on when I would actually leave as my departure was dependent on the hiring process because we did not have an interim staffing plan in place. If it took one year to identify the right person, I would remain in my role for the year. However, things progressed quite quickly, which eventually shortened the entire process. 

  3. Seek Organisational Effectiveness Grants

    While transitions can be a time when donors feel uncertain about the future of an organisation and may pull out, many are also deeply invested in successful transitions and leadership building. We were fortunate enough to receive both unrestricted funding from the Numun Fund and an organisational effectiveness grant from the Hewlett Foundation that we could use to develop our new strategic plan, fund our leadership team retreat and hire change management and leadership coaches. These grants proved to be immensely helpful in our transition process. Our entire team was able to meet for several days for a retreat in Kenya to fully unpack the transition and handover process, and I had a very lovely farewell party as well. In essence, these grants provided the breathing space and resources we needed to successfully navigate the transition.

    If you’re a donor reading this, please consider allocating funds to support organisational effectiveness efforts!

  4. Time the New Strategic Plan (including Stakeholder Research)

    We felt that the transition was the perfect time to reshape our new strategic plan, which took sincere input from everyone in the team and the communities we work with. It felt like the right time to re-evaluate and re-align. We worked with a wonderful consultant, Stephanie Brancaforte, who interviewed our internal staff, our donors, our partners and community members to understand our strengths, and weaknesses and how through a shared purpose, we could better serve the data and digital rights ecosystem. Over several months, staff members were tasked with shaping key aspects of the strategic plan.  The entire process helped us to understand what we would need in the next leader and how they can effectively shape the organisation for the next 3 years. 

  5. Decide on Hiring 'Must-Haves'

    Defining the ‘must-have’ qualities and skills required in a successor is a tightrope balance of aspiration and realism. Of course, we want someone who can do everything but it’s not realistic. We had to hone in on what skills we needed the Executive Director to have and what we were willing to let go. After all, you can hire the right people for any missing skill sets, but it’s much more difficult to mould someone to fit into your culture and values, especially at a senior level. We wanted someone who was deeply feminist, firmly understood the implications of technology on our future, was a strong culture match and would be able to commandeer a team that spanned 10 countries at the time.

    This then exposed us to choosing between hiring externally or internally. External hires bring fresh perspectives but may need time and handholding to understand the organisational culture. Internal hires ensure continuity but may grapple with past issues such as internal politics. I personally think hiring internally with the intent for people to grow into larger roles is the way to go.

  6. Pursue Opportunities for Leadership Growth

    That said, investing in the growth of emerging leaders is not just about filling future vacancies. Coaching and mentoring colleagues are investments to that individual, in the organisation's future and even when they move, to the entire sector. As part of the transition, as I mentioned previously, we were keen to identify leadership coaching and mentors to support the new Executive Director - and this included conversations with other EDs who have been very gracious with their time, professional coaches and change management consultants.

  7. Develop Your Approach to a Phased Transition

    Finally, we had to decide what an extended transition would look like. Would it look like co-leadership for a couple of months? Or would we retain our roles and work more closely to start off with a final handover down the road? I opted to completely step back and take on an advisory role, with availability to the entire team, for one year.

    However, I should note that this included making myself unavailable to the team for the first month. I did this because I wanted staff to fully embrace Irene as our new Executive Director without either reverting to me for decision-making or reverting to my prior decisions in future decision-making. I find that there is the danger of inertia as colleagues resist change under the guise of maintaining past practices, often masked by the argument, 'but that’s not how we did things under the previous leadership'.

    Irene and I catch up almost daily and have monthly advisory calls. I’m available to brainstorm, troubleshoot or guide only when I’m needed. My decisions do not supersede Irene’s and she makes the final call.

    In terms of LEGAL transition, well, that’s more complicated and I am still learning my way around this, so unfortunately, no nuggets of wisdom there. If you have experience and would be willing to share, I’d love to chat it out and possibly write a follow-up post.

Building a Universal Transition Plan

This piece got me thinking, ‘How do we create a transition plan that is adaptable for all roles’, whether it's an emergency or a planned change? For example, when one of your directors, researchers or administrative staff leaves. What resources do you need to have in place to make a smooth transition across any role in the organisation? Who/what are the key people, processes and finances involved? Can there be one universal, customisable Transition Plan?

What’s next?

For me:
Do I miss being Executive Director of Pollicy? Not really. I love my advisory role.
I have zero regrets in my decision to leave and full confidence in Irene as ED. 

I was already proud of what Pollicy was able to accomplish in its lifetime and now I’m even more proud to see it independent of me.
Since then, I’ve been busy tinkering with many different things as well as finding time to write, make art and enjoy my new city. Some exciting announcements coming up soon.

More generally:
For African entities, in particular, challenges around successful transitions are often magnified by resource constraints and complex socio-political environments. There is a need for context-specific research, capacity building training and coaching, and organisational development to build internal cultures that are resilient and adaptive, especially in unprecedented instances such as the COVID pandemic. This includes support in building systems and structures that are flexible, scalable, and aligned with both local realities and global best practices.

There are not many knowledge resources on transitions for African leaders. One of the few initiatives that pop up is the Innocent Chukwuma African NGO Leadership Transition Fellowship Program (ICLTFP), formerly known as the African NGO Leadership Transition Fellowship Program (LTFP), which is funded by the Ford Foundation.

So, hapa kazi tu.

Hope this blog has been useful! If you’d like to chat more about leadership transitions or share any other resources that might be useful for inclusion, drop me a line here

Mahon Pool in Maroubra