Leadership transitions speak to an organization’s values, sustainability, and creativity.
by Doug Smith
Disney’s Board recently announced the return of Bob Iger after kicking CEO Bob Chapek to the curb because of his two years of poor performance at the Mouse House. The Board needed to make more than an adjustment, so they chose to make a statement. The return of Iger, Disney’s former corporate Jedi, signals the magical return of one of the strongest brands on the planet.
The Data Friendly Space (DFS) Board also announced a leadership transition announcement recently, but you might have missed it. For those familiar with the global NGO, the transition might have been a surprise, but it didn’t exactly move markets. Non-profits change leaders all the time, right? And Founders often reach a point where they need a break. In fact, I would say the best leaders realize the need for change before a Board needs to intervene.
Last summer, DFS’s Executive Director began feeling burned out. A student of the contemplative arts, Ewan Oglethorpe was incredibly attuned to his health, creativity, and energy levels. Working from Africa, he found himself in a moment of deep personal reflection. He understood what his next steps needed to be. DFS had realized breakneck growth over the previous 24 months, and the complexities of leading a globally recognized software development NGO amid a continuing pandemic were taking a toll on his ability to perform.
The DFS Board worked with staff to set up an aggressive global recruitment process to intentionally move the organization from Founder to Leader. After hundreds of hours reviewing candidates, the Board resoundingly confirmed to staff that Karin Maasel of Estonia would be its next Executive Director. Her background and commitment to the response sectors aligned perfectly with the organisation’s values. And most importantly, she was bringing new energy and creativity to the table as a woman in tech, a humanitarian, and an organizational developer.
The Board had not been planning for a leadership transition, but it had senior staff in place who had guided organizations through leadership transitions in the past. I worked through CEO transitions at a variety of organizations like Heifer International, The Montpelier Foundation, and the Virginia Interfaith Center, each of which presented unique challenges. Senior managers from DFS put a plan in place for a leadership transition as soon as possible, making a huge impact on the continued stability of the organization. DFS was able to release public announcements, execute the search, and coordinate the handover from outgoing leadership to incoming leadership pretty flawlessly.
Non-profit leadership transitions can be notoriously intricate, especially for founder-led organizations with a global reach. Yet, in this instance, the organization is flourishing, expanding, and primed to welcome Karin Maasel’s fresh perspective. Though leadership transitions are often a tad uncomfortable, the likes of which Disney experienced quite publicly, Ewan and Karin managed to meet in Scotland for a weekend retreat to ensure a seamless transfer of power. As consummate professionals, they made the transition appear almost effortless.
When DFS discusses hiring staff, its HR lead Shweta Khatri often asks, “Is this person humble?” In Scotland, the transition retreat was able to confirm that Karin would extend the kind of humility that DFS has attempted to extend into all its work. And that humility brings its own kind of stability to the organization. After all, Karin Maasel is building her own brand in parallel to DFS now and so the congruence is very helpful.
Amidst the transition period, DFS has exhibited admirable transparency with its key stakeholders, including staff, donors, and crucial networks represented by the DEEP Board. As the technical lead for the DEEP platform, DFS has provided frequent updates and open communication about the transition process, timelines, and opportunities for stakeholders to provide input and feedback. Though not everyone could be included in the interview and selection process, the Board strived to engage as many individuals as possible from various corners of the organization.
Such dedication to collaboration was vital to maintaining a positive and supportive organizational culture during what could be perceived as an unstable process. Now that Karin Maasel will begin in March, all partners and stakeholders have a degree of ownership in the final process and should aid in ensuring a successful leadership transition.
Although DFS may not have the name recognition of Disney, its work to leverage data for humanitarian aid and address the unmet needs of affected populations is incredibly significant. Hence, the appointment of Karin Maasel as Executive Director could be deemed even more critical than the return of a corporate titan.
Doug Smith is the Director of Operations at DFS and currently serves as the Interim Executive Director of the organization.