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What To Do When A Leader Departs?


Following a spate recent departures and announcements of upcoming retirements in the region, WAMC takes a look at how organizations go about filling the empty shoes.Having the captain leave the ship can be unexpected, expected, welcomed or feared. Regardless of the situation, many organizations in the Berkshires are now tasked with filling a leadership role. In the past month, Michael Conforti has announced he will retire as director of The Clark Art Institute after nearly two decades, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will be losing founding director Al Bashevkin, Jennifer Dowley will depart the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, the creator of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus John Oliver will take a final bow and artistic director Rick Dildine abruptly left Shakespeare & Company after just six months on the job. And that’s just to name a few.

Thames Fulton is a managing director with the search firm RSR Partners focusing on board management and succession planning.

“It’s an opportunity for reflection,” Fulton said. “Really thinking about where the organization is going and what are the critical experiences and leadership competencies that are necessary to support that growth whatever it may be. Typically you are not looking for a clone of the previous leader. You don’t want to be looking in the rearview mirror.”

Tom Whalen is an associate professor in the business administration department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The school recently picked Greg Summers to succeed Mary Grant as president. After a departure, Whalen says, organizations have to decide whether to tackle the search themselves or bring in a third party.

“It depends upon the qualifications that are required for the position and the candidate pool that’s available to the organization that they can get ahold of right away,” said Whalen.

Fulton says search firms are independent, therefore avoiding internal goings-on with the ability to dedicate more time searching than the organizations themselves.  He says firms look for qualities like intellect, curiosity, authenticity and the mental and physical capacity to be a leader, an around the clock requirement that typically involves quick switches between strategic and tactical thinking. He explains how firms like his go about finding the best fit.

“It’s a combination of our own relationships, which we are constantly developing in the marketplace, so we usually have a fast start there,” said Fulton. “We are also resourced with researchers who drive a focused approach of looking at target industries, target positions or target companies. So we start looking at other organizations where the right skills and experience may lay so we can identify individuals that way.”

Fulton says organizations typically fill a leadership slot in 90 days regardless of how the departure occurs. He says an unexpected exit creates a sense of urgency and a need to fill the position in order to show competency. Whalen says organizations need to be open to going in a different direction than under the previous leader, but the new captain should avoid making abrupt changes.

“Unless you’re in extremis you don’t want to make any drastic changes immediately,” Whalen said. “If change is going to come, allow it to come organically. Change typically comes from the bottom up despite what many leaders think that ‘Well I can come in and change things.’ You can come in and change things, but often times that change is not going to be what you expect because people react to your efforts to change and those efforts to change may have the exact opposite effect that you think it’s going to have.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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