The Case for a Year of Care: Shifting the Leadership Transition Narrative

Too often, leadership changes and moments of transition bend an organization’s response toward fear and uncertainty. For staff and partnering communities, particularly those closest to the pains of structural racism, xenophobia, discrimination, and inequality, the stakes are even higher. Economic inequities undergird the arts and our workforce, amplifying legitimate concerns and fears.

What if there is another way? What if we embrace transition as an ambitious period to reimagine trust building, organizational clarity, and transparency?

A San Francisco-based arts institution opened to the public in 1993, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) believes artists are essential catalysts for equity, justice, and social change. By listening to and collaborating with artists and our community, we seek to hold up a mirror to who we are and inspire what we might become, together.

In January 2022, YBCA’s CEO, Deborah Cullinan, departed to join Stanford as its Vice President of Arts, and former YBCA board chair Sara Fenske Bahat became interim CEO with Renuka Kher stepping into the board chair role.

Among the many big transition questions YBCA has begun unpacking since was this powerful, heartfelt ask from a staff member when meeting Sara: “Why should I invest in someone who is only here as interim CEO?” This is a poignant question important for us to ask ourselves as a collective. An interim leadership is, by definition, temporary, and our time is invaluable. So why should we care?

Embrace Impermanence
The absence of a permanent leader during a transition period can create a lot of concern and anxiety, but that absence is also an opportunity. Intentional impermanence means the staff, board, and community are empowered to be primary, active collaborators in the shaping and evolution of our organization. Beyond any one individual, this is an investment in the power of the collective, a means to find new and possibly lifelong collaborators, and a great way to nurture leadership skills. Interim CEOs, rather than imposing their own individual vision, act as conduits for this work.

We’re approaching this time with a clear mandate to ensure safety and transparency, grounded in relationships. As one staff member shared, “Change is a constant, and at this time of flux we must witness and team with one another with absolute respect and care.”

Balance Ease and Rigor
Transitions are some of the best opportunities for nonprofits to grow and develop, because they allow for truly aligned leadership—board and team, inside and out.

As we move through internal and external shifts at YBCA, we are taking time to pause, evaluate, and reflect. This takes a variety of forms, including one-on-ones and coffee walks with colleagues, quarterly retreats with the staff and leadership team, and activating the board into “working board mode.” Like kneading dough, making this space allows for an organization’s identity to be pushed and pulled in different directions by different voices, yielding an even stronger and better whole.

At our March 2022 staff retreat, we gathered to respond to the prompt, “What would make YBCA awesomer?” The results were breathtaking in their clarity and simplicity: “Encourage staff health—stretching, walking, breathing, meditating, yoga.” “More Transparency from leadership.” “Do less with more NOT more with less.” Every single response was shared with staff after the retreat, to be processed, addressed, and expanded in the coming weeks.

Move at the Speed of Trust
Change is far less daunting if we understand our identity as an organization, beginning with the creative and passionate teammates we work with every day. Transitions open dialogue and spur team-building, allowing a holistic evaluation of the deadlines, deliverables, and pressures of the nonprofit industrial complex—an opportunity, in other words, to take a step back and ensure we are all working efficiently and well, together.

This transition comes at a particularly impactful time, as YBCA and many other cultural institutions return to in-person programs after two years of COVID lockdowns and the longest mass closure of performance venues since World War II. As we gather and hold space as a community once again, how can we make the most of long-overdue chances to connect with and learn from each other?

At YBCA, this implicates not only our staff, but our close community partners. We are examining deeply how we show up in coalition with them and how we can challenge ourselves to go further—taking great care to consider our and our collaborators’ priorities, strengths, capacity, and needs.

We hope other institutions will embrace change, too, and that the work YBCA is doing over this period can shift the paradigm in the field, emphasizing the generous and generative.

It’s essential for nonprofits to move in harmony as a team, for the staff, board, supporters, and community members to understand each other and work together. Times of transition are rare opportunities to center and directly engage with exactly this type of work.

This is a beautiful opportunity to tell and live out the story of an organization in its truest shared form—and to hand it over to its next leader in as strong a position as possible, so that the growth and ambition can fuel a virtuous cycle that lasts well beyond this time.

In this time of growth, we are particularly encouraged that some of our largest funders are embracing this opportunity alongside us, and we hope it inspires other funders to follow suit. The philanthropic community has a vital role to play in supporting sustainable growth in our nonprofit partners, and in encouraging the kind of thoughtful, deliberate transition process we are benefitting from at YBCA.