How Do Nonprofit Interims Manage Staff Stress During Transitions?

How Do Nonprofit Interims Manage Staff Stress During Transitions?

Spotting Burnout and Reconnecting Staff to Joy


By Cynthia Armour


In our June Interim Executives Roundtable, we explored what might be the signs of organizational burnout and how professional nonprofit interims can help.


Whether planned or sudden, leadership transitions can be stressful for all involved – board members, staff, and volunteers.


In an ideal world, a succession plan is part of the organizational culture which helps everyone know how to process the next steps in a leadership vacancy and proceed methodically.


Unfortunately, that ideal is rarely the case.


When a previous executive director’s departure is messy or controversial, there is probably evidence of burnout throughout the organization. Understanding the advance warning signs of stress is crucial for interim leaders to be effective agents of change.


What Does Burnout Look Like?


I remember reading a book decades ago called, “Your Attitude is Showing”. It was such a great primer for this topic, and despite the title, it taught me that although the consequences can be observed, attitude itself cannot. 


While staff and board attitudes will have a significant impact on the interim’s results, it’s their behaviors that provide the evidence and/or the outcomes. 


In staff, interims might see a general malaise, lack of energy or creativity, negativity, irritability, blaming, undermining, resistance to change, absences or late arrivals. All of these signals can lead to programmatic deficiencies, complaints from clients and other stakeholders.


From a board perspective, the board chair is probably feeling – and possibly carrying – the brunt of the weight. 


The remainder of that leader’s team may be disengaged which would certainly be a contributing factor in an “unforeseeable departure”. As mentioned above, volunteers can experience similar symptoms with a significant impact on their governance responsibilities, including one of their most vital tasks – recruiting and retaining the organization’s chief executive.


How Can Interims Help?


It’s understandable that board and staff can feel overwhelmed by the reality of finding a new leader; people lose their objectivity when they’re stressed.


As specialists in transitional leadership, interims have the ability to provide a measured perspective and the guidance needed to help secure that organization’s future.


Rather than using observable evidence as a reason to run away, our strength can be to provide solutions. That’s not to say to ignore the warnings but with the right expertise, deployed strategically, we’ve got the ability to ensure that the organization’s next ED is hired on a solid organizational foundation, not a fragile infrastructure.


Solutions include assuring the board that a professional interim executive comes with objectivity and years of leadership experience specifically equipped for these types of challenges.


With the help of a transition team – comprised of respected and trusted volunteers and staff – the interim can insightfully help steer everyone around many of the biggest roadblocks while identifying and dealing with the quick wins that provide the necessary traction to move forward.


Revisiting roles and responsibilities is a logical step to take with staff and board members because they change, depending on the organizational lifecycle, circumstances and HR capacity.


    • Can tasks be streamlined or redistributed?
    • How can we recruit more volunteers to help?


This priority can be particularly enlightening if the board has to suddenly run the organization; remaining in their “governance lane” is always a challenge but particularly if they are required to oversee operations in the absence of a CEO.


Reconnect with Success and Joy


Ask people what success would look like to them. Draw out their collective wisdom, listen intently and guide them toward manageable solutions that instill confidence and get results. 


One suggestion from the Roundtable was to have the opposite of an exit interview.


Ask staff, volunteers and board members, “What motivates you to stay with this organization?” 


As interim executives, we have the ability to help team members successfully navigate a leadership transition by valuing their input and reconnecting them with the joy that brought them to the organization in the first place.


Cynthia Armour, CFRE is a Canadian-based Senior Affiliate for Third Sector Company with 30+ years working with third sector organizations in governance, strategy, fund development and communications. Connect with Cynthia on LinkedIn.