Peter Stanford: How to deal with your chief executive's departure

Whether they leave for good or bad reasons, handling a chief executive's departure is one of a chair's more difficult and delicate tasks

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

How best to present the news when your chief executive is leaving? The question came to mind with announcement that Georgette Mulheir, chief executive since 2011 of Lumos, was to step down from the charity established by the author of the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling. 

What caught my eye in this case was that the exact circumstances were not clear. Mulheir will remain as life president – usually an honorary rather than an active position – and have a new global strategic advisory role for the charity. But the chair of Lumos, Neil Blair, has also offered by way of explanation that "some management and culture challenges… require immediate action".  It sounds like what might be called constructive ambiguity: honouring the person who is going, but making plain at the same time that change was needed.

Beyond the specific case – the details of which are known only to Lumos – all organisations can at times find similar high-level departures tricky. There is the human instinct to do your best by a colleague who you have liked and valued so that they can go forward with their life and career. And there is a protective urge to big up the health and rigour of the organisation. With charities the tension is greater because, for those in leadership roles, their contribution has usually been more than a job, sometimes akin to a calling, and because charities are more sensitive than most to the damage that any hint of internal turmoil can do to public trust in them.

I have been through a few senior-level departures as a charity chair. In some cases, the person in question was leaving to take a bigger job and we were just sorry to see them go: slightly bereft, but pleased that their exceptional achievements and skills had been recognised by others higher up the food chain. 

There have also been less happy episodes. My instinct has often been to say as little as possible. Least said, soonest mended, as we were told as children. But it is more complicated than that. If your chief executive is leaving unexpectedly, sometimes hastily and unhappily, it leaves a vacuum. In practical terms, staff, supporters and those the charity supports will need reassurance that the ship remains on course. In one case, in the interregnum that followed a precipitous exit, I ended up in the office two days a week to make sure the transition wasn’t too traumatic, soothing concerns without being indiscreet and focusing on directing eyes forward rather than backward. That, though, isn’t always possible for chairs and trustees who have full working lives of their own.

In presentational terms, too, in an age when our charity websites and social media presence often draws attention to who the chief executive is, what they look like and what they have to say for themselves, it is increasingly hard even for those with a much lower profile than Lumos just to say nothing when a vacancy opens up at the top and just carry on. At its simplest, there is that empty photo slot in the "our team" section of the website that needs filling.

Experience has taught me that the people who are most likely to be disturbed by news of senior-level departures are often the donors. In the case of Lumos, that is principally JK Rowling, which makes communicating the message more straightforward, I suppose. Elsewhere, however, in what is an ever-more competitive environment in which to find and retain that whole coalition of donors required to keep most charities buoyant, the very last thing you want to have to do is tell them that the person they have been dealing with as chief executive, with whom they have built a relationship of trust, has gone. 

However well you do it, it leads to inevitable questions. If you say very little, out of loyalty to a departing colleague’s feelings, you risk sounding cagey. If you say too much, too anxious to explain, you sound unprofessional. There is a line to walk, but it is tough to get it exactly right.

Perhaps it is a good reason for not staying on as a charity chair for too long. Managing one unexpected or unhappy departure is sufficient.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more 
than 20 years

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