December 23, 2022

Leadership transition 101

A smooth leadership transition is difficult to achieve, but not impossible. Here are a few suggestions to help you with this organisational change.

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8 min read

Breakthrough was conceptualised and founded by Mallika Dutt in 1999. Seventeen years later we won the prestigious Skoll Award, and in the same year, Mallika decided to step down from her role as CEO of the organisation.

When Mallika made this decision, we had two locations to run—New York and New Delhi. A team comprising Breakthrough’s board members and senior management was set up to find a new CEO. An external facilitator was hired to guide us through the process. However, despite all the discussions and processes, nothing prepared us for the chaos of what a leadership transition entails.

Breakthrough’s leadership structure consists of a president and a CEO, with a country director each in India and the US. I had been with Breakthrough since 2010, first as a consultant and then from 2014 as a full-time employee working on setting up a resource mobilisation unit. So I was familiar with the dynamics and workings of the organisation. Since the existing country directors were not interested in becoming CEO, I decided to apply for the position. The entire process took approximately a year, and by the time I was finally hired, Mallika’s transition period was over and she had completely stepped down. Although she was available to answer questions, I was essentially on my own to steer through the transition.


It was sink or swim

Once I took over, I learnt that the US programme had not been doing too well for the previous year, and that we weren’t able to scale the programme. Meanwhile, India was on the cusp of growth. While I was wrapping my head around these polarities, both country directors resigned—which meant I had to handle three jobs at once. No amount of familiarity with the work and the organisation could prepare me for the responsibility of handling two locations and three positions. I had imposter syndrome for a long period, and contemplated resigning several times as well.

Every leader sets a precedent during their time—they have their own voice and a way of working that the organisation is familiar with. The previous country director for Breakthrough India had been with the company for 13 years. I couldn’t come in and dismantle everything that she had built. And so it was natural that I had doubts about my ability to take over and run Breakthrough differently yet successfully.

Moreover, my biggest fear was being boss to my friends and peers in the senior management team in India. Luckily, that wasn’t something I had to worry about for long, as all of them showed exceptional openness and welcomed me as their leader. Their attitude coupled with my belief in shared leadership helped me create a seamless hierarchy in India, thereby making the transition less stressful.

The US, however, was a different story. The work culture, funding requirements, and board engagement were completely different. While funders in India need proposals, reports, and outcomes to process the funding, it operates differently in the US, with proposals being renewed over phone calls, a process foreign to India. The board too was far more involved and prescriptive in the US, which was very different from the more independent relationship that the Indian entity and board enjoyed.

I spent several months just familiarising myself with the US programme—building relationships, navigating the culture, and learning about board aspirations. In fact, initially I contemplated closing the US programme and turning it into a fundraising office for India, but the board felt differently, and so I spent time understanding their vision.

yellow board with pins and plastic chips-leadership transition
Leadership transitions are never straightforward or effortless. | Picture courtesy: Rawpixels

Making the transition work

Leadership transitions are never straightforward or effortless. The learnings from the process of taking over at Breakthrough taught me some valuable lessons.

1. Build trust with your peers and in the organisation

Mallika believed in shared leadership, an approach and ethos that I wanted to continue with. Shared leadership entails laying a foundation of trust by giving freedom to other leaders in the organisation to work in their areas of expertise, while holding them accountable for their actions. This can be difficult, especially with senior people who have been with the organisation for a long time and have their individual styles and methods. But we made it work. It took intentionality and time and a conscious effort for us to build confidence in one another and be seen as reliable colleagues in our areas of work.

At my end, I built individual lines of communication with each senior colleague, and developed a one-on-one relationship with them. We also sought to encourage an open culture where the team feels comfortable in providing honest feedback, even if it’s negative. We conducted an exercise called ‘the five failures of a dysfunctional team’. Together, we identified existing gaps and room for growth. Lack of trust and accountability were identified as core issues, which we worked to resolve.

To ask the team to put their faith in me, I had to first be honest about my own vulnerabilities, accept my shortcomings, and ask for feedback on areas of improvement. To do so, I set up a review system within the team where they could give feedback, which went to the board and then came to me. It created confidence in them that I was willing to hear criticism and work on my limitations.

2. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses

It is natural to compare yourself with your predecessor. Not just you, the entire organisation and outsiders do it as well. It is therefore imperative to recognise one’s own strengths and weaknesses during such times.

I was aware of what Mallika as a leader and founder brought to the table. She was a visionary, a human rights leader, and a great public speaker. I came with more than 25 years of experience in the development sector, but the experience and expertise do not matter at this stage. The comparisons happen regardless. Therefore, rather than trying to fill the shoes of the previous leader, learn to play to your own strengths. For example, while I didn’t have much experience with public speaking, I’m a team player and could get the best out of people I work with. This helped me make up for the areas I was weak in—I employed people from whom I could learn and who handled the work I had no knowledge of. 

Similarly, on the technical front, I lacked an in-depth understanding of research, monitoring and evaluation, and media for culture change. Again, I recruited experts in the field and learned from them. It helped the entire organisation in building a base of knowledge that was missing.

If you’re afraid of admitting where you lack something, you will not step out and get the needed assistance, which is crucial in the long run. It’s also about bridging the gap between what you’re familiar with and what is unknown to you. For instance, fundraising is a key responsibility of my role as CEO. I had experience in raising institutional funds, but almost no experience of retail and CSR fundraising. We brought in experts here as well wherein I was able to channel my previous knowledge but also absorb a great deal of new information from them.

3. Recognise when to take a step back

One of my biggest challenges was balancing Breakthrough’s US and India operations simultaneously. The time zones, physical locations, and culture were diametrically opposite. Handling two full-time jobs on opposite sides of the globe, and living away from home and family with constant travel, is not something I’d recommend.

In hindsight, I recognise how difficult it was to manage this and would advise anyone attempting a leadership transition to create boundaries and strive to achieve work–life balance. Having to do too much at once further aggravates one’s existing doubts.

While we managed to raise some grants for the US programme and roll it out, we faced multiple challenges in the form of the amendment in the FCRA laws in India and finding the right kind of leadership to take on the country management in the US. The person we finally hired to lead the programme left in August 2019, as he got an offer from another organisation.

This management vacuum slowed down the progress there. I started getting impatient due to my own time constraints and couldn’t concentrate either on the US or on India, leading to more dissatisfaction with myself and my work. Finally, I stepped down as the US country director. The decision was also aided by the fact that I could no longer travel to the US due to COVID-19 constraints.

4. Seek assistance when required

I was fortunate to receive support from various sources through the transition. The three big ones that stand out are:

  • A leadership coach based in Nairobi with whom I had 12 sessions. During these sessions I learned how to lay down a path and vision for myself, how to approach the senior management teams and boards, and how to maintain a balance between the US and India.
  • Our senior management team in Delhi who held the fort when I had to travel and helped me maintain my wits as I sought to handle two locations at once.
  • My board members. Not only were they understanding and encouraging, but they also took my opinion on what I could bring to the table and helped me learn what I wasn’t familiar with. They allowed me to hire experts to guide me on governance, finance, and compliance. I was honest about the areas I lacked expertise in and they were patient when I was learning. I also worked with the board to professionalise it. We came up with regulations, discussing the buy-in with them and finalising on the terms. This was important if we were to have a clear decision-making and organisational structure.

Advice to people starting this journey

Five years into a successful leadership transition, there are some lessons I’ve learned on what could have made it a better and smoother process.

1. Have your predecessor become your mentor

The previous leader should stay on board in an official and planned mentoring position for the new leader for at least a year. It shows that both leaders have a common vision and ambition for the organisation, and makes it easier for the organisation as a whole to accept the new leader. Moreover, it gives the team time to adjust and the transition doesn’t come across as an abrupt change to funders and other external stakeholders as well. It also reduces the burden on the board to train the new leader in the ways of the organisation.

2. Build a culture of training future leaders

Transitions can be much easier if you first look within the organisation for the next leader. Building and preparing a successor should be part of every senior leader’s job responsibility. A second line of leadership within the organisation is essential, and work shouldn’t stop if one person leaves.

To make this the case at Breakthrough, in 2018, we created a group of 40 senior leaders as the emerging leadership team. Out of the 40, we identified a core group of 10—who would be in place in a rotational capacity—to deliver on the organisation’s mission and vision. After two years, another 10 members take their place to do the same. This way we have a set of senior members prepared for an eventuality of any transition in the future.

3. Have well-defined goals

Have clear goals and a structure and plan for the organisation. We define our organisational milestones for the year through a set of activities, of which 80 percent is fixed and final and 20 percent is flexible. This well-defined structure and goals can help the new leader as well, in that they do not have to start from scratch and know which path to go down.

4. Make time for yourself

Lastly, as a leader who has added responsibilities and has to manage expectations while battling the chaos of transition, be prepared to work all the time. But take out time for yourself as well.

It is ingrained in our psyche to check e-mails and answer calls during non-working hours. However, it is important to understand that projects and responsibilities are never-ending. After recognising the quantity of work, make a plan to focus on your well-being as well. There’s a tendency to burn out and have mental fatigue, which can never be productive. Focusing on your own well-being in any way will help in sustaining your role in the long term.

To friends embarking on the same journey, get your family and friends on your side. As you take on such a role, it is essential to have unconditional support from your family for you will be deserting them for long hours and missing celebrations, vacations, and time with them. Fortify yourself with courage for there will be crises, emergencies, and dark times. And surround yourself with self-belief for there will certainly be moments of self-doubt.

Know more

  • Read this article to learn about the skills required to be a nonprofit leader, as explained by senior nonprofit leaders.
  • Read this article to understand transitions from a founder’s perspective.
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Sohini Bhattacharya-Image
Sohini Bhattacharya

CEO of Breakthrough, Sohini is a social change enthusiast who has 25+ years of experience in the social sector. Prior to Breakthrough, she co-founded a gender resource centre; worked directly with grassroots communities and built market-artisan interfaces for a national nonprofit. Sohini spent 10 years at Ashoka Innovators for the Public, and also worked as the India Strategy consultant at the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network for its crucial first three years of launch. She is a founding trustee of Read India, and a board member of Dastkar, Kolkata Sanved, and Aakar Social Ventures.