Adams book cover
The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations, by Tom Adams (Jossey-Bass, 2010, 384 pp., $42). 

"Our people are our most valued asset.”

How often board members and executives utter those heartfelt words as they acknowledge the hard workers who dedicate their careers to our theological schools. Yet in this world of scarce time and money, how few of those same board members and executives actually invest in the development of the very staff they are praising.

Tom Adams, cofounder and president of TransitionGuides, brings his impressive experience working at the intersection of leadership and strategy to this handbook, which aims to motivate organizations to act upon the “irrefutable connection between effective leaders and organizational results and impact.” With case studies, a wealth of top-notch reference material, and practical action plans, he provides boards and leaders with tools for the project of improving the performance of their organization through development of their people.

Two separate but related tracks, leadership transition and leadership development, intertwine throughout this work, sometimes in circuitous ways. Adams first acknowledges the confounding reality that leadership change is “perpetual, ubiquitous, and unavoidable,” but that organizations typically treat leadership transition as merely episodic. Top-performing organizations, he says, make it a habit to pay attention to succession all the time.

The attention to leaders implicit in comprehensive succession planning leads almost inexorably to the second track, the cultivation of the “leaderful organization.” This awkward- sounding term entered the management vernacular in the early 21st century to refer to a new paradigm that embraces a rigorous commitment to, and investment in, leader development and leader transitions.

Every organization has its own unique context and resources. But to create a “leaderful organization,” the first step is always commitment and focus by the board and senior management. At minimum, every board should have an emergency backup plan for unexpected absences and a succession policy that provides a structure and process that will serve as a guide when change does occur. Leadership development should be a fundamental part of annual planning and annual goals. Beyond the basics, Adams introduces specific tools for evaluating and monitoring the organization’s needs, including sustainability audits, sustainability plans, bench strength reports, and strategies for departures that are predictable but not scheduled.

Not to be missed among the leader development topics is the chapter on diversity, with special attention to racial-ethnic and age diversity. Adams cites a rich bibliography to provide evidence that when leadership is more diverse, there are “new perspectives, different conversations, and new approaches” that generate creativity and vitality. Further, he forthrightly addresses the difficulties of fostering a genuinely diverse and inclusive community and offers practical solutions for making room for differences. 

Every board is responsible first and foremost for fulfillment of the mission of the institution it serves, and mission cannot be achieved without the presence of strong leaders. That’s why this book serves as a good reminder not to wait until the next leadership transition is imminent to get ready for change. (When that happens, this book will not be your best resource. Instead, see Tom Wolfred’s Managing Executive Transitions: A Guide for Nonprofits, one of Adams’s top recommendations, which I reviewed in the Summer 2011 issue of In Trust.) 

You really do need The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide now, not just for an imminent change of leadership. Peruse the chapters and select from the expansive menu of possibilities the practical steps you can use to build vigor and resiliency through investment in your institution’s most valued asset.  

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