CEO Shoes
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Who Will Fill Your Retiring CEO’s Shoes?

When it’s time to conduct a search for your association’s next CEO, follow these tips to ensure that you bring in a new leader with the experience, qualifications, vision, and values that match your organization’s culture and goals.

By Carol Barber

At long last, baby boomers are seriously considering retirement. Their retirement savings plans have rebounded and stabilized, and they feel more secure about starting a new chapter in their lives. With 10,000 people turning 65 years old every day until 2030, organizations of all kinds will face a mass exodus of senior leadership talent. 

How prepared is the association sector to meet this human capital challenge? According to Nonprofit HR’s 2014 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey, many organizations continue to operate without formal succession plans; of those without, only 14 percent say they plan to create one in the coming years. Ready or not, many associations are already dealing with the daunting task of replacing their top executives. 

The good news is that an executive’s departure by retirement usually allows ample time for thoughtful planning and action. However, the retirement of an executive does come with its own set of challenges. There’s often a strong emotional bond between the executive and stakeholders, which can derail objectivity and delay necessary steps to find an ideal replacement. These issues can impede progress and tee up a rushed search process that leaves everyone feeling uncomfortable and uncertain.

As soon as an organization’s CEO has determined that retirement is on the near horizon, it’s essential that she use her personal leadership skills to exert a positive influence on the selection process and produce desired results. Here are 10 steps to help your association find a new leader who has the qualifications, experience, vision, and values that align with organizational culture and goals.

The good news is that an executive’s departure by retirement usually allows ample time for thoughtful planning and action.


  1. Be inclusive. Work with your board to identify a search committee that includes a variety of stakeholders, such as your members, staff, volunteer leaders, board, and strategic partners. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, five to eight search committee members are usually enough.

  2. Do your homework. Using ASAE’s executive compensation data and the 990s of similar associations, define the elements of the total compensation package to be offered to ensure fair market value and overall competitiveness.

  3. Write a plan. Create a project plan that details all deliverables and due dates. An easy way to build this plan is to start with the desired “offer accepted” date and work backward from that.

  4. Encourage objectivity. With help from the search committee, conduct an internal survey to determine the specific skills, experience, and characteristics needed in your replacement. This task can be handled via email or phone and should include the same types of stakeholders as listed in step one.

  5. Define the job. Using results from the survey, work with the search committee to create a detailed job description that includes primary and secondary responsibilities, as well as required and preferred qualifications.

  6. Sell the job. With board approval of the job description, work with the search committee to create recruitment messaging that includes a scaled-down version of responsibilities and qualifications, compelling reasons to consider the position, and a specific call to action for candidates.

  7. Use technology. Working with the search committee, create a scorecard for ranking candidate submissions against the prerequisites of the job. Simultaneously, setup a central portal for receipt of candidate submissions and for the search committee to electronically review and rank candidates.

  8. Inside first. Launch your recruitment messaging internally before announcing it externally. All of your stakeholders are good sources for recruiting candidates and will appreciate being asked to participate ahead of outsiders. You can spread the word using your e-newsletters and other messages you send to your internal stakeholders.

  9. Go public. Publicly launch your recruitment messaging using employment sites such as this one (you can post the job here) and other industry-specific job boards or publications, and make sure to feature it on your own association’s website.

  10. Almost there. The search committee’s scorecard rankings can now be used to narrow down the candidate slate and determine those who should move to the next round.

Of course, more steps come after these (phone screening, background checks, in-person interviews, and final selection, to name a few), but the heavy lifting is done. By now, your actions have sent a clear message that the incumbent CEO and the association are committed to making the transition process as smooth as possible and creating a positive entry for the new leader.

Carol Barber has more than 30 years of experience in talent acquisition and serves as Association CareerHQ’s executive recruitment concierge. In this role, she helps associations attract and select new leaders. Email: [email protected]

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