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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corporation: When Change at the Top is an Opportunity

On a bitter cold morning in 1981, a priest at the Immaculate Conception Church in Hartford found a homeless man frozen to death near the church steps. Vowing that such a tragedy would never happen again, parish priests opened the basement of the church to homeless men who had no other place to go.

Thirty years later “Immaculate,” as it is affectionately known, still offers sanctuary to Hartford’s homeless population, under a powerful mission. It states that because housing is a human right, Immaculate will provide housing and decent shelter with unconditional love to those with no other options.

But now the shelter is just one component of the Immaculate Conception Shelter & Housing Corporation. In its latest growth spurt, the 40-person nonprofit organization is building a 50-unit apartment complex serving chronically homeless and low-income clients with wrap-around services.

In the midst of Immaculate’s transformation, the long-time executive director whose name was synonymous with the once-modest little shelter, announced she was leaving. Rather than hastily place a help wanted ad in the local newspaper, the nonprofit organization called TSNE.

A Thoughtful, Measured Approach

Through much of its modern history, Immaculate was led by former Executive Director Patti White, by all accounts a dedicated, gifted, mission-passionate leader for the nonprofit. So for some, like Board Chair Jacqueline Reardon, White’s announcement of her plan to leave in 2008 required major strategic thinking about Immaculate’s future.

“It’s a huge change when your executive director leaves, especially when she’s been the face of the organization for 6 and a half years,” Reardon explains. “Our nonprofit organization had experienced tremendous growth, and the agency had so many issues that needed to be addressed. You don’t want to rush to find new leadership. Quite the opposite. You want to take the time to assess the organization.”

Which precisely mirrors the approach of TSNE’ Executive Transitions Program, says Hez Norton, former executive and organizational transitions program manager. “While stressful, a significant change in leadership is an opportunity – almost a requirement – to stop and ask where the nonprofit is headed and what skills the next person should have to lead it there.”

Assembling the Transition Team

Transition Consultant

Former executive director White recommended that nonprofit expert and TSNE Transition Consultant Ann Thomas lead the process, and Reardon agreed. Thomas knew both Patti White and Immaculate.

“Patti put her heart and soul into positioning Immaculate to change its strategic direction from focusing on emergency shelter to Housing First,” Thomas remembers. “I think she was ready to pass on the reins to a new leader for Immaculate’s next stage of development.”

Interim Executive Director

Immaculate also asked TSNE for an interim ED, which turned out to be a crucial element, Reardon says. “In retrospect, I can’t imagine how we could have taken the months we needed for the transition without knowing that we had steady management throughout.”

TSNE sent 3 interim executive candidates. One particularly stood out during the interviews: Cathy Cohen. According to Reardon, Cohen was very measured, very organized and undaunted by the task – “really impressive.”

Cohen has been consulting for 20 years, with a background in healthcare and nonprofit management. She felt comfortable with Immaculate right away.

“I saw an organization that had undergone rapid growth and was facing a $12 million project following a great deal of negotiating,” relates Cohen. “The interview was very thorough. They asked how I felt about ‘wet’ shelters and dealing extensively with real estate matters. In turn, I found Immaculate’s mission and the Housing First model very compelling. I could see the strength and commitment of the board.”

The Board

Thomas then helped Immaculate choose the third essential ingredient for the process: a 5-person transition committee of board members. “The Transition Committee has to be fully engaged, too,” admits Reardon.

Last, but certainly not least, Reardon is very grateful to the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving's Nonprofit Support Program, which gave a grant to Immaculate to work with TSNE’s Executive Transitions Program. “Frankly, none of this would have been possible without its support.”

Interim ED Takes the Helm

Facing Challenges and Building Resources

Cohen took the helm immediately, finding unexpected challenges and resources. “Much was happening. The number of revenue streams coming in, both positive and negative, surprised me,” she explains. “There were lots of contract relationships to be managed. I did an immediate financial assessment, and the results were sobering. But there wasn’t a moment when we [the board and Cohen] weren’t in agreement. They accepted that someone coming from the outside has the clear eyes to see matters as they are.”

Cohen advised the nonprofit to continue its relationship with an outside financial firm rather than hire a CFO, and the relationship continues to be a good one.

Ensuring Strong Programs

Like any nonprofit executive director, interim or not, Cohen was responsible for staff and programs, too. Reardon particularly praises Cohen for going ‘above and beyond’ on the nonprofit organization’s Summer Respite program. “It was clear we didn’t have enough money to continue one of our oldest programs, but Cathy felt it was important. We told her if she could raise money from other than our regular sources, we would keep the program open. She found more than enough funding.”

When Fred Lynn was ultimately hired as executive director and started working, he says he found a ship-shape shop. “I didn’t have to catch up on the books, the funder reports were up to date, the board had its act together, and the finance committee knew what it was doing. That certainly made everything better!”

Transition Consultant Starts with Assessment

Just as Cathy Cohen was jumping into Immaculate as the interim executive director, Transition Consultant Ann Thomas was beginning her tenure with a comprehensive assessment of the organization. “During an assessment, I talk to and survey people both inside and outside the organization. I’m gathering information from a variety of perspectives to help the board set its priorities and clarify the key characteristics the next leader must have.”

“Ann’s assessment told us what our staff, our board members, our funders and our community leaders were thinking about Immaculate,” Reardon agrees. “The results were not so much surprising as they confirmed how we thought we were viewed and the role we play.

“Most important, in my eyes, the assessment helped us come up with the profile of the executive director we would need for our next steps. The next leader would need very different, very specific skills in finance and management,” she adds.

The Search for a New Executive Director

Interim ED and Transition Consultant Worked Well Together

In the Executive Transitions Program, it is important that the interim executive director and the transition consultant work together closely. The interim executive focuses on the day-to-day operations and helps the organization maintain momentum during the transition. The transition consultant works closely with the board and helps to focus its attention and energy on the transition itself.

It was clear that both Cohen and Thomas admired what the other did for Immaculate during her tenure.

“Cathy actually started before I did,” notes Ann Thomas. “I developed respect for her very quickly. She had to get involved almost immediately in the nonprofit’s contract negotiations and did so professionally and well. Her capable handling made it possible to take the time we needed to do the transition right.”

“She also came to Transition Committee meetings. She put her two cents in when it mattered, especially when we were discussing the complexities of the new executive director would be facing. Her input was always useful, never overbearing.”

Cathy Cohen is equally complimentary of her counterpart. “Ann Thomas was just great! Her relationships with the board and staff were wonderful to see. Ann needed to know a lot about the organization to find the right person to lead it. She had a wonderful way of gathering the information and listening to people. Ann was a pleasure to work with!”

Both Cohen and Thomas also had the continual support of Executive Transition Program staff at TSNE. Hez Norton is never further than a phone call away. “We have regular checks-in, but Ann and Cathy know – just as Immaculate’s board knows – that they can call on me at any time.”

Thomas’ role changed significantly following the assessment. Now she was a recruiter looking for the best candidate to fill Immaculate’s needs. Fred Lynn marvels that he saw the job posting on craigslist.org. “I was fascinated that it wasn’t a conventional listing,” he remembers. In fact, Thomas says Immaculate did not purchase any print help wanted advertising.

At every stage of the hiring process, Thomas was Immaculate’s professional intermediary, Reardon points out. “She initially screened all the resumes and recommended just 10 for us to interview by phone. She arranged all the interviews, suggested the questions we should ask, and kept us to a tight time schedule.

“Ann sat in on the first set of face-to-face interviews, but primarily as the timekeeper. When the interviewee left the room, she would guide the discussion, but always objectively.”

Suggests Thomas, the search itself is a learning adventure. A nonprofit organization can learn much by hearing what candidates think about your nonprofit, your mission and your operations.

Fred Lynn had a positive perspective as an interviewee. “Ann Thomas was good. I could tell that she led the board through a well-coordinated process. At the interviews, she was very calm. She let the board ‘do their thing.’ She only asked a question if the board had not asked something important. And whenever she was arranging interviews with me, she was very professional and a pleasure to deal with.”

Thomas is clear about her standards. “It’s really important to me that the candidates know exactly what is going to happen every step of the way. And I want them to all have a uniform experience.”

A Process That Works

And the process certainly worked, ultimately finding Fred Lynn, who had started his career as a “houser” in the Bronx. At the time of Immaculate’s executive transitions process, Lynn was managing a $40 million, 200-employee program as chief program officer at Community Renewal Team, Inc., the largest community action agency in Connecticut.

Best of all, to everyone’s delight, “The mission attracted me to the job,” he reports.

Despite her neutrality, Thomas admits she thought Lynn was the right person at the right time for Immaculate.

“Fred was unflappable,” Thomas explains. “The group had lots of questions, What should we do here; how does this work? Fred has dealt with equally or more complex situations, so he was quite obviously comfortable answering them. He also has a style of offering ‘pros and cons’ instead of telling them what to do. The board responded well to that, too. Even the month before he started, Fred and I talked regularly about his first days.”

Wrapping Up

By September 2009, it was time for Cohen and Thomas to hand the reins over to the new executive director Fred Lynn, and for Jackie Reardon to continue her role as chairwoman of a newly-stimulated Immaculate.

Ann Thomas had one more task she wanted to do. “A new director is always unsettling for the staff. I wanted to be sure they had an opportunity to get questions, concerns, hopes and dreams out on the table quickly and in a safe environment. I asked Fred’s permission to hold confidential group meetings with the staff … without him present. He agreed.”

“The staff still talks about it to this day,” says Lynn. “They appreciated her respect, and I was grateful to hear their concerns undistilled.”

“This work is what TSNE’s Executive Transitions Program calls the ‘thrive’ phase,” Thomas points out. “The process isn’t complete the day you hire the new executive director.”

A month after Lynn started, Thomas returned to help him and the board design his goals for the year. They also talked about the process for evaluating his performance when the time came. “The board was reasonable,” she states. “It was a good process and fair. Again, I give Ann lots of credit for her role.”

Fred Lynn also appreciates the role that Cathy Cohen played as interim executive director. “Cathy and I continue to have a very nice relationship,” Fred says. “I know I can call her with questions, and she will always be helpful, and then some.”

Immaculate’s new executive director is blunt about the importance of Immaculate’s executive transitions experience. “If it wasn’t for the transition process, I don’t know if the agency would be as viable as it is today.”

Jacqueline Reardon has already recommended the Executive Transition Program to others. “I would advise anyone going through such a change to use TSNE. I know it’s an odd word to use, but they give you the ‘luxury’ of doing everything right, from beginning to end, complete with good advice and guidance.”