Rice’s Best Boards conference shines light on nonprofit leadership transitions

The departure of an organization’s leader and the arrival of a new one can be make-or-break moments for an operation. This year’s Best Boards conference hosted by Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies Feb. 28 encouraged members of the Houston nonprofit community to think carefully and with a commitment toward best practices as they approach leadership transitions and succession planning.

As part of her Best Boards conference keynote presentation, Episcopal Health Foundation CEO Elena Marks moderated a panel exploring best practices related to nonprofit leadership transition and succession issues. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

The concept of transformational leadership presents itself in a variety of different ways throughout the life of an organization, Kristen Schlatre, director of the Glasscock School’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, told the capacity audience gathered in the school’s Hudspeth Auditorium. “We believe that the ability of boards to rise to the occasion in periods of transition and settings that call for effective leadership directly impact the continued and sustained success of an organization,” she said.

The annual all-day conference is designed to help nonprofit board members and staff work together more effectively. First held in 2001, this year’s event drew a capacity audience of more than 250 people, including board members, executives and staff, from 110 different nonprofit organizations.

Keynote speaker Elena Marks, the president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation, a $1.2 billion philanthropy based in Houston, shared insights and lessons learned from her experiences as a nonprofit board member, in particular in times of leadership transitions. She currently serves on the boards of Grantmakers in Health, Harris Health System and Community Health Choice.

“Coordinating the timing of leadership changes between the board and the CEO is really critical, and it can go well or it can go poorly,” said Marks, who is also a nonresident fellow in health policy at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Marks also emphasized the importance of understanding the requirements of transparency and confidentiality in a CEO search, in particular for organizations that are subject to open meeting laws. “We ought to be doing our business in public, but when you’re (as a public entity) recruiting for a …  very high-profile position, being able to do that by offering candidates confidentiality is really tricky.”

Houston nonprofit community leaders Laura Jaramillo and Rafael Alvarez spoke candidly with Marks about their experiences with changes at an organization’s top.

Marks is working with her board at the Episcopal Health Foundation on policies to address transition and succession questions. “Nobody wants to talk about it, and there is some sort of stigma attached to it,” she said. “If you start talking about it, it means that I’m leaving or they want me to leave, and neither is the case. But it’s really important for governance and continuity of the business of an organization that you plan for CEO successions.”

As part of her keynote, Marks moderated a panel with Laura Jaramillo, senior vice president and community relations manager at Wells Fargo, and Rafael Alvarez, founder and former CEO of Genesys Works and a lecturer in management at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, to explore perspectives on the issue from both the board and CEO lens.

Jaramillo said boards managing a transition should focus on planning and communication. “The board has to all be in unison on what the plan is,” she said. “Everyone has to be engaged … everybody agrees on what the end result is that they want to see. There has to be communication and transparency. Oftentimes the staff feels uncomfortable and isn’t communicated with, maybe, and doesn’t know what’s going on. That’s really important that someone is communicating with staff … because they often feel as though their jobs are at risk.”

Alvarez, who recently stepped down from his role as CEO at Genesys, stressed the importance of a strong relationship between the executive of a nonprofit and the board chair and knowing when the time for a transition at the top has come. “Your responsibility (as a board member) is to the organization … and no one can be there forever,” he said.

Now in its 10th year and drawing on the Glasscock School’s decades of work in offering courses in nonprofit leadership and fundraising, the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership works to increase the effectiveness and impact of the nonprofit sector by providing education and nurturing leadership among professionals and those who support the work of nonprofit organizations. Engaging Houston and empowering its success are also goals of the university’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.