Earlier this week, Teach For America (TFA) announced that Wendy Kopp will be stepping down as its CEO. One can imagine that after founding TFA back in 1990, and growing the organization into an important contributor the education reform movement, Kopp would certainly be ready to pass the reigns of the day-to-day operations to someone else. But another part of the TFA announcement also caught my eye: Kopp was elected as TFA’s board chair.
Such a move is fairly common in a for-profit business. If things are going fairly well for a company and its CEO is ready to step down, moving to the board chair role seems fairly common–at least that’s my perception from transition announcements I read. I’m sure there are some examples out there, but I can’t think of an instance where the CEO of a nonprofit moved to the board chair role. The norm in the sector seems to be that change is needed when nonprofit executive position is turning over, particularly if the CEO is also the founder. A seat on the board for the outgoing CEO isn’t too common from what I’ve seen, let alone the board chair spot.
One reason I’m interested in this issue is my experience of transitions. When I took on the role of Generations Inc. Executive Director back in 1996, the organization’s founder, Peri Smilow, moved to a seat on the board. When I told colleagues about this, I was met with a lot of raised eyebrows–as if to say, “How is that working out?”, ready to hear horror stories. But I thought it was great having Peri on board. She brought great passion for our work and important historical knowledge. She also played a key role as a board member maintaining the support of key donors she’d cultivated over the years. She would bring strong opinions to the table, but did a good job of offering those as the voice of one board member, not someone still trying to run the show.
When I was ready to pass the torch at Generations Inc. and start Social Capital Inc., we’d just landed a big expansion grant for Generations Inc. It seemed like staying on the board would help new Generations Inc. Executive Director Mary Gunn hit the ground running with the growth plans. As it turned out, Mary was a great find and didn’t need much from me to thrive, but if nothing else my board membership provided some reassurance to the funder that had just made a sizable investment in our growth. (as an aside, Mary continues to provide great leadership for Generations Inc. eleven years later, very heartening to see!). I cycled off after a three year board term.
Going back to the TFA announcement, why should Kopp’s move to the board chair seat be noteworthy? Seems to me it provides continuity during a time of transition. Also, I’d think the option of becoming board chair for a founder who may be ready to step away from daily management of the organization might make one more likely to make the move when the time is right, rather than holding on to the CEO spot longer to avoid no longer having a tie with the organization she or he founded.
Perhaps transitions from nonprofit CEO to board chair are more common than I realize, and I just haven’t noticed them. I did a quick Google search on the topic and didn’t find anything that really speaks to it. This is my off-the-cuff reaction to the news, if you know of more nonprofit transition examples like TFA’s or articles written on the subject I’d be curious to know about them.
One final note on the TFA transition. Kopp’s transition to board chair was accompanied by an announcement of co-CEOs to succeed Kopp. Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer, both top managers from within the organization, will assume the helm. Co-CEOs and finding a new CEO within the organization are probably topics worthy of their own blog post! I’d simply observe that TFA seems to have put some good thinking and work into developing a plan to transition from the daily management of its founder to its next CEOs. I wish the organization and its leaders well in this new phase…and would say that the title of the new CEOs’ blog post is a good sign for TFA’s future, “We Will Begin Leading By Listening“!