4 Steps to Take When Your Leader Walks

Losing a high-performing leader can feel jarring and disruptive, but there are immediate steps you can take to ensure that the loss of such a leader feels more like an opportunity than a catastrophe. Below are four ideas for leading through change at the top.

Increasingly, DHR Global is getting urgent calls from CEOs with an immediate need to replace a high-performing member of their senior leadership team tempted to another role. Most are understandably concerned that it will be difficult to replace a high performer in a tough market – others are nearly panicked.

More now than ever, CEOs across the country are feeling the weight of the “great re-evaluation” across their org chart. A recent report by Nonprofit HR noted that in the next three years, 45% of nonprofit staffers will seek new jobs. Let’s face it, the challenges of replacing a high-performing leader on your team may be anxiety inducing, but there are steps you can take to put you – and your colleagues – at ease during a period of unexpected transition.

What pre-emptive actions can leaders take to ensure their new hire(s) are successful? We identified four immediate steps you can take when a high performer quits.

Listen, Reflect, & Communicate

As a leader, you have a specific lens through which you view your internal leaders. Take this period of transition not only to reflect on your perceptions and experiences but to learn from internal and external stakeholders and gain insights into the open role. This includes the personality and skills others feel are important for a new leader. It is a critical opportunity to learn from individuals who have interacted with the outgoing leader over time and under various circumstances. Contact Board members, colleagues, and staff, as well as donors.

Find those who knew the leader when they started, saw them at work, and witnessed their accomplishments and struggles over time. This knowledge will help you to understand how the position has evolved and what drives high performance in this function. It can also be the first step is getting buy-in/acceptance from those who will interact with the new leader.

Engage Your Outgoing Leader

An outgoing leader can provide important information as you make the decision for your next hire. Before their departure, ask them to make an informal list of all their daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities. Beyond the role’s core functions, you will want to understand their team’s dynamics and behaviors that drive success, as well as where there may be potential challenges for someone stepping into the role. The goal is to make sure you design the position to meet the needs of the organization and look for someone with the skill sets and personality to perform successfully in that role as it evolves into the future. As Rebecca Knight noted in her Harvard Business Review article, The Right Way to Off-Board a Departing Employee, “You’re not going to be able to clone the employee, but you can identify her behaviors, thought patterns, and processes that have made her such a valuable decision maker.”

Grab a Looking Glass

Change is hard, but it’s important to look forward. As you prepare to fill the position, asking these questions will help you identify what skills and mindset will help your nonprofit thrive

  • Envision what success means for your organization now and into the future – what will you be doing, accomplishing and what would you like to be celebrating in 2 or 3 years?
  • What skills, background and qualities will help your organization reach those goals?
  • Who will be a strong “culture add” as your organization evolves?
  • Consider what the position might entail in 3-5 years.
  • Will the individual you hire today have the agility and resilience to change with the times?  Anticipate and frame candidate conversations in a way that helps you understand candidates’ ability to lead a team through periods of growth or evolution.

Solidify Buy-in

Once you have collected feedback and established an early-stage plan, circle back with those you engaged earlier in the process. You have taken a great first step in engaging and collecting insights from those impacted by the departure, but change can be anxiety inducing. Take time to communicate a high-level plan and timeline in order to build trust and allay concerns of those faced with uncertainty during transition. This is a second opportunity to gain stakeholder buy-in, as you make a final decision on the best candidate for the opening.

Finally, get ready to act quickly. In this fast-moving market, there are a lot of great leaders looking for a change, but competition is fierce and the need to move efficiently and make decisions quickly is more important than ever.

Meet the Authors

Sara Garlick Lundberg


With more than 20 years of leadership experience, Sara specializes in nonprofit search consulting, organizational assessment and executive transitions. She works across the health, education, human service, conservation, arts and youth development spaces to secure executive leadership, as well as with CEOs to identify senior talent in the areas of finance, fundraising, operations and research. 

Maryanne Wanca-Thibault, Ph.D.


Maryanne has more than 30 years of experience as a Consultant and Advisor in the areas of leadership assessment, organizational development and executive coaching. As a Partner of DHR Leadership Consulting, she helps clients assess fit for executive, C-suite and board positions.

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