08/06/2012 07:40 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

When Executives Depart

As someone who has spent a career developing models for successful arts organizations, it is clear to me that no model replaces an entrepreneurial, talented, dedicated leader.

This point came home to me as I was talking with a former student of mine, someone who left her successful arts organization in the hands of a new executive. My student was concerned that the recession had finally 'caught up' with her organization and her replacement was forced to deal with huge new challenges. In fact, she was concerned that the organization might fold entirely.

It was clear to me that my student had been dealing with many of these same challenges for her entire multi-year tenure with this organization; I had been on the receiving end of a series of emails and telephone calls from her for the past five years and had always marveled at her resiliency, her ingenuity and her ability to make tough decisions.

Her replacement was not facing new challenges, in fact; she was facing the same challenges but without the history and credibility with the donors and audience and artists and, perhaps, without the same degree of entrepreneurial skill.

While it is true that many of our audience members and donors are far more wedded to the art and artists than they are to the leadership, it is equally true that some of our family members, especially board members and donors, are attached to leaders they know and trust.

The departure of a successful executive can wreak havoc on the support base of an organization if it is not handled well (or if the new leader simply does not have the skill to pull it off).

Efforts must be made, well in advance of the departure (assuming it was planned some months or years in advance), to ensure that all supporters have relationships with those staff members who will remain with the organization. If the board or donor base only know one top person, his/her departure is certain to be wrenching. When family members are comfortable that a group of staff members are smart, engaged and supportive they will be far more relaxed about the appearance of a new leader.

Board members and senior staff members must also be willing to invest time in developing and implementing a plan to introduce the new executive to all important supporters. The more time that can be devoted to getting the family excited by the ideas of the new leader, the better. This means that a plan for press, social functions, board meetings, staff meetings, etc. must be laid out in advance of announcement of the leadership change.

In the end, though, it will be up to the new executive to put supporters' minds at ease, to inspire with new, vibrant ideas, and to demonstrate the entrepreneurial skills needed to keep the organization on mission and fiscally stable. In other words, despite possessing a unique set of strengths and talents, the new leader must be able to manage the organization as well or better as the predecessor.