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The Palate Cleanser CEO

A question for all those with experience in the nonprofit sector: how often have you seen the following sequence of events unfold? A long-time, successful, often beloved, CEO retires or moves on to another opportunity. The board undertakes a thorough review of the organization’s needs, launches a wide-ranging search, vets the best candidates, and finally hires a successor who everyone agrees is just plain outstanding. Then, anywhere from two weeks (yes, two weeks!) to two years later, the board asks the person to leave. Another search ensues, another terrific person is hired, and this time it works out wonderfully. I suspect that many of you — like me — are quite familiar with this scenario.

I have come to call the short-term unsuccessful CEO, who both follows and precedes successful leaders, “The Palate Cleanser CEO.” Why? Because the role reminds me of a scene in an old movie I once saw where, during a fancy meal, between substantive courses, a small dish of sorbet was served to “cleanse the palate of the last dish so that it is better able to appreciate the next.”

Are boards prone to making a bad hire after a long period in which they have not needed to exercise those particular muscles? Then, after one failure, have they fine-tuned their abilities so that they are now able to make a great hire? I don’t think so.

Instead, I think there is something to the palate cleanser analogy. Organizations become quite accustomed to the ways of a long-time leader. They adapt their culture to his or her quirks, they compensate for his or her strengths and weaknesses, and they come to see the world through his or her eyes. This is true regardless of whether the CEO is loved and admired or feared and loathed. The incumbent, after a long enough time, comes to define the organization. This makes the transition to a new leader particularly fraught.

Almost without exception, a new CEO is going to usher in change, even if unconsciously. He or she will be an early bird where the predecessor liked to stroll in at 9:30 a.m. and work until 7:00 p.m. The new leader’s sense of humor, dress, demeanor, and degree of formality are all likely to differ from what the organization is used to. Moreover, boards often specifically hire for someone with “a new vision” who will take the organization “in a new direction.” Their confidence in the old leader, and the stability they experienced over many years, may lead them to believe they are more ready for change than they really are. Then, once tested, those very same boards, and their staffs, often strenuously resist even minor changes in direction. Once these conflicts arise, comparisons to “the good old days” begin in earnest. The new CEO is often unaware of the root cause of the problem, the sudden cooling of enthusiasm for his or her ideas and even for him or her. The new leader’s efforts to clarify direction are seen as “being wishy washy,” and attempts to mollify concerned team members are viewed as “being weak and over-accommodating,” while an unwavering attachment to his or her carefully-crafted change agenda is interpreted as being “power hungry” or “not a team player.” The downward spiral of negative interpretation continues with every act until the new CEO crashes and burns. After this horrible experience, the board goes through another search and brings in the next CEO. This person is compared less often to the long-term but now departed CEO than to the recently failed CEO, painful memories of whom are still fresh (particularly if the organization is still negotiating with his or her attorney). The result of this change in frame of reference is that everything this new leader does is interpreted as clearer, more team-oriented, and more brilliant than the efforts of his or her immediate predecessor, even when they are the same ideas. The organization’s palate has been cleansed

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