New Book Spotlight: Barry Dym’s Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits

in Emerging Research, Faculty, Organizational Behavior, School
July 27th, 2011


Boston University School of Management’s Barry Dym sees a watershed moment approaching for nonprofits across the U.S., one that could have repercussions for the nation’s broader economy.

Dym is Founder and Executive Director of the School’s Institute for Nonprofit Management & Leadership. In his recent book Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence, published in March 2001 by FT Press and coauthored by Susan Egmont and Laura Watkins, he notes that a significant percentage of today’s nonprofit organizations are led by baby boomers expected to retire sometime within the next decade. With 1.4  million nonprofits in the U.S.–and another 40,000 created every year, equaling 15-20% of the economy in many of our nation’s cities–the crisis of leadership that’s poised to erupt in the nonprofit sector could make waves throughout the broader marketplace.

The stakes: A crisis of leadership, poised to erupt in the nonprofit sector, could make waves throughout the economy.

When these baby-boomer leaders do retire, “Tens of thousands of new leaders will be selected and chartered by hundreds of thousands of board members, managing millions of staff people and serving many millions of clients,” Dym says.

In response to this potential crisis, Managing Leadership Transitions offers a game-plan for adeptly navigating changes of leadership, especially in the nonprofit sector. “Our goal is to supply a new theoretical perspective on leadership continuity and transition, and a practical guide for managing both,” Dym says. “The framework should orient readers for the long haul, addressing such questions as how boards should manage professionals through the seasons of organizational life–providing equal comfort to those soon to face or already in the midst of a difficult transition by presenting a step-by-step guide to transition management.”

Transitions are developmental crises that can move organizations from their current stage to the one they have envisioned in their strategic plans.

A New Perspective: Leadership Transitions as Positive Change-Agents

Explaining what is particularly unique about the work Managing Leadership Transitions, Dym and his coauthors write, “To our knowledge, books already in print take a narrow view of leadership transition. They treat transitions as though they were anomalies, situational crises to be ‘fixed’ as quickly as possible.” In contrast, this book posits “transitions as part of the natural course of life in organizations, to be managed in the way that all other stages of organizational life should be managed: with the skill and care that come from reflecting on what came before and what should follow.”

Building on this view of leadership changes as potentially positive change-agents, the book casts  “transitions as developmental crises that have the potential to move organizations from their current stage to the one they have envisioned in their mission and strategic plans.”  To help readers tap this potential, Dym and his coauthors offer “a blueprint” for “seizing the transitional day.”

The Four Keys to Beginning Well in a New Transition

Managing Leadership Transitions lays out four crucial perspectives from which to understand organizational change and then seize the opportunities it can create:

  1. We believe that transitions takes place over a longer period of time. We ask: What came before the departure; what led to contentious or drawn out departures, and how will we do better next time? Knowing the answers to these questions is a key to understanding, and thus being able to manage well, through any leadership change.
  2. The fundamental challenge of leadership is to align all organizational resources in the service its mission, vision, and strategies. Hiring a new leader without some clarity about strategic directions is asking him or her to fly blind. Developing at least a rough agenda to serve as the new leader’s guide star is crucial, and is the second key to successful transitions.
  3. The quality of leadership and the relationship between lay and professional leaders move through recognizable stages, including periods of hope and disillusionment and moving towards periods of balance between expectations and the ability to meet them. Each stage presents its own challenges. Managing well through all of these stages represents the best chance of sustained and effective organizational leadership.  It is the third key to effective transitions.
  4. Board presidents cycle in and out with even greater rapidity, often differing dramatically in style and values; and these differences require powerful adjustments by the CEOs. The coming and going of chief operating and chief financial officers and program directors can also be disruptive, creating problems and opportunities.  In other words, there are regular transitions in key organizational relationships that are almost as powerful as those of the leader, himself. They must be managed, too.

Learn more about Managing Leadership Transition for Nonprofits: Passing the Torch to Sustain Organizational Excellence.