Going from Second in Command to Chief Executive: June Issue of Bridgestar’s “Leadership Matters” Explores Ways to Make an Effective Transition


Boston, MA -- (ReleaseWire) -- 06/08/2006 --When nonprofit organizations look to hire new Executive Directors, they often look at people who held the number-two position, whether internally or at another organization. While responsibilities for any role vary significantly across organizations, these variations pale in comparison to the substantive gap between that of Executive Director and COO. The transition to Executive Director can be challenging, whether the COO has been promoted internally or has been recruited from another organization, because the position’s focus is external (compared to the COO’s internal focus) and the emphasis on strategy (rather than execution). Those promoted from within face an additional challenge: having to form new relationships with colleagues who formerly had been peers.

According to interviews conducted by Bridgestar, and published in the June issue of “Leadership Matters,” individuals and organizations need to work together to make the transition successful. A nonprofit initiative of the Bridgespan Group dedicated to attracting, connecting and supporting senior leaders for the sector, Bridgestar provides talent-matching services specifically for senior management roles, including a free job board, content and tools, and a COO LISTSERV® that grew out of the need of nonprofit COOs to connect and share their questions and ideas. Leadership Matters” is a monthly newsletter that picks a different theme designed as a conversation about how to build and sustain effective nonprofit organizations. It is available to Bridgestar members (or, for a complimentary subscription, please email

“Ten years ago, Executive Directors were responsible for developing and executing strategy, and you didn’t typically see Chief Operating Officers in the sector. More recently, the sector has embraced the need for COOs to manage day-to-day aspects of nonprofit organizations as they grow, and because of mounting pressure on Executive Directors to focus on strategy development, fundraising and communicating the organization’s vision,” says David Simms, Managing Director, Bridgestar. “As a generation of leaders retires, or when an Executive Director simply transitions to another organization or role, a COO can be a great candidate, especially if they and the organization understand how to make a successful transition.”

The preparation to transition can start while the executive is still in the COO role, when there is ample opportunity to build skills and seek opportunities to demonstrate leadership beyond managing operations, in areas such as fundraising, communications, and vision setting. Christina Severin, a COO-turned-CEO, took on leadership roles so that when she was promoted, everyone in her organization was prepared: “Because of everything we had done along the way, when the announcement came out, people from the senior leadership team to the front-line staff said, ‘Of course it’s her, she’ll be good at that.”

In internal transitions, the new Executive Directors needs to communicate clearly how his or her role has changed, especially for colleagues accustomed to old ways of thinking. According to Pine Street Inn’s Executive Director, Lyndia Downie, “Setting ground rules early on about what wasn’t gong to be in my purview any more was important…I spent a lot of time with the program staff transitioning them to the new Vice President.” Setting new ground rules is a good idea for COOs-turned-Executive Directors, too, since typically they find their new roles to be less concrete, more big-picture, and could be prone to micromanage otherwise.

This issue also includes a case study of how Sandra Timmons, the COO of Girls Inc. became Chief Executive of A Better Chance. In addition, there is advice for COOs who prefer to be “career COOs” – who love making organizations run well and are less interested in fundraising and external affairs. The challenge is to continue their career growth and remain engaged in their work; the solution may be to move to larger, more complex organizations or to an organization with a structure that gives the COO more responsibilities.

The current issue of “Leadership Matters” is available at:

About Bridgestar
Bridgestar, an initiative of the Bridgespan Group, is a nonprofit organization providing talent-matching services, content, and tools designed to help organizations build strong leadership teams and individuals pursue career paths as nonprofit leaders. Bridgestar’s goal is to attract, connect, and support senior talent, leading to greater organizational effectiveness and social impact.