Four Ethics Guidelines for Leadership Transitions

Ethical Succession January 14, 2019 By: Katherine M. Finley, CAE

When it’s time for an association CEO to move on and a new executive to step in, several ethics issues come into play. Follow these four guidelines to ensure a smooth and ethical transition.

You’re an association executive director, and you’ve decided to take a new job—or maybe you’ve decided to retire. At this time, why should ethics come into play? Because leadership transitions can raise a series of ethical issues, and an outgoing executive who fails to navigate them properly can hurt the organization in the long run.

Ethics are always complex, and individual situations require specific evaluation. But following a few general guidelines for outgoing—and incoming—executives can help you stay on an ethical course during a leadership transition.

Leave a complete record of how the organization operates. This record should include policies, timelines, and deadlines for various projects; bank account and other financial information; passwords and codes; and a list of important contacts. Withholding critical information is as bad as giving incorrect information, and both are unethical.

If certain dilemmas are likely to remain unresolved when you leave—a conflict with a vendor over a contract, for example—tell the board or the next executive what they are. It is unethical to hide these issues and let them “explode” under the new executive. You don’t want to prejudice the new executive about a troublesome situation, but you do need to inform him or her that the issue will need resolution.

Ensure an open search for a successor. If your organization is using a search firm to recruit a new executive, the association’s search committee or board should ensure that the chosen firm is highly ethical. This means that the firm doesn’t simply pull from past contacts and candidates to whom the firm owes a favor. Although a good search firm will have strong candidates to recommend, it should be willing to do an open search to find the best candidate for the job.

If certain dilemmas are likely to remain unresolved when you leave—a conflict with a vendor over a contract, for example—tell the board or the next executive what they are. It is unethical to hide these issues.

Stay out of the search. It is unethical to advocate for a particular candidate for your position, especially if you do so because you believe that person will follow exactly in your footsteps and ignore needed improvements or changes. It is OK to answer questions about a candidate or the candidate’s qualifications, if you are asked. For example, if the search committee doesn’t understand what the certified association executive (CAE) credential is or how much work goes into earning it, then your knowledge can be useful.  But it is unethical to advocate for a candidate who merely will protect the projects and programs you started.

Also, it is unethical for you or the board to withhold or misrepresent key performance indicators—a decline in membership numbers, conference attendance, or revenue, for example—in an effort to attract a better candidate or hide the true nature of the task ahead of the new executive. The successor should know exactly the size and financial situation of the organization.

A word for the incoming executive. If you are the new executive, it is unethical to blame your predecessor for problems that face the organization when you arrive. Granted, if you find that the previous executive committed malfeasance, then you have a responsibility to tell the board. But short of that, if an issue wasn’t handled the way you would have handled it or if an initiative didn’t achieve the results desired, then the issue or project is now yours to resolve or pursue.

Blaming others won’t fix the problem, and you probably don’t have all the information that your predecessor had when he or she made the decision that seems questionable to you. Your ethical responsibility is to move forward and address the problem rather than continuously blaming others.

While an outgoing executive’s tenure in an association is almost over and the new executive’s work is just beginning, both have an obligation to hold themselves to a high ethical standard during the transition. Doing so ensures that the handoff of leadership goes smoothly, avoids disrupting operations, and supports continued organizational success.

Katherine M. Finley, CAE

Katherine M. Finley, PhD, CFRE, CAE, is executive director of the Organization of American Historians in Bloomington, Indiana.