Succession Planning: The Five Stages of CEO Abandonment

By John Pearson

This is the ninth of 11 blogs featuring practical wisdom from the new ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 4: Succession Planning. Free to ECFA members, you can download the resource and video by clicking here.

Principle No. 9 - Plan for Plan B: Your CEO Resigns

Surprise…and maybe shock! While you thought your CEO would serve until retirement, today she called your board chair to announce her resignation!

CEOs exit for many reasons:
• God’s call to another ministry
• Transition back to a previous career or organization
• Burnout or boredom
Lack of passion
• Illness or family challenges
• Geographical and/or weather preferences
• “Pounding the same nail” one too many years
• Out of alignment with the board’s vision
• Failure or position mismatch
• Theological disagreements

You likely have other reasons to add to this list.

Boards will often have a sense of abandonment. The timing is rarely perfect. Some board members will experience one or more of the five stages of loss and grief popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

As you’re negotiating this transition, heed the counsel from author William Bridges, who notes that “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” He lists three phases of managing a transition: the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.

Boards will be alert to these phases during a CEO succession process. For more, read Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, by William Bridges, and read my blog post, “Beware the Emotional Effects of Transition,” about the 22 emotions that your board might experience along the continuum—from denial to enthusiasm.

Warning and Reminder!How boards and CEOs negotiate the delicate dance of honoring each other will be observed by staff, volunteers, stakeholders, givers, and the community. (Not to mention your next CEO recruit!) What an opportunity to be God-honoring!

1. We have board-approved policies that address CEO succession.
2. As a board, we are experienced at spiritually discerning God’s voice—and we will not need to learn this competency in the middle of a crisis.

TO DO TODAY: Download the Facilitator Guide and inspire a board member to address how you’ll respond to a “Plan B” scenario. Remember: every CEO is an Interim CEO.

DOWNLOAD: ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 4: Succession Planning – 11 Principles for Successful Successions: “Every CEO is an Interim CEO.” The toolbox includes
Read-and-Engage Viewing Guide (20 pages) – photocopy for board members
Facilitator Guide (10 pages)
• 4 short videos (4-5 minutes each)
• Additional resources and succession planning tools

MORE RESOURCES: Follow the “40 Blogs. 40 Wednesdays.” color commentaries on Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom. Click here.


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.