From the CEO

A position of mutual benefit

I had the board chair at a member organization reach out to me the other day to say that their current CEO wants to have the title of president emeritus once the new president starts. Her board had mixed feelings, and she wanted to get my perspective on the matter. I explained that emeritus means different things in different organizations. In higher education, it is generally a lifelong designation that is bestowed on a professor of merit who wants to stay active following retirement and teach a class here and there. (And it is often a paid position. In fact — I looked this up — the average salary for a professor emeritus in the U.S. is $178,185 per year! Nice gig if you can get it.) In other organizations, someone with the emeritus title is a former board member who is invited to remain at the table as a nonvoting member in an advisory capacity. But for a lot of nonprofits, it is an honorary title given to a person who previously headed an organization and has stepped down or is now retired…but is still involved with the organization or the ministry genre in some meaningful way, like mentoring the current leader or serving as an ambassador.

One reason a ministry might want to have an emeritus is for affirmation and assurance. When a new president comes aboard, it’s comforting to constituents and stakeholders to know that the respected outgoing president is still somehow connected, tying the past to the present. It shows everyone that the venerated former leader still believes in the organization and is supporting its endeavors. Frank Jacobs, who will be on stage at our upcoming conference in Orlando, has been the president emeritus at Miami Rescue Mission for more than 15 years, representing President Ron Brummitt, as needed. Steve Burger, my predecessor, is technically still a president emeritus of Citygate Network. Even now, I call Steve from time to time to ask him a history-related question. It doesn’t have to last this long, but if the relationship continues to produce good will and good vibes, there doesn’t have to be a sunset date.

Here’s a second reason: If agreement is reached that the outgoing leader is to remain actively involved in a particular role for a designated period, the title president emeritus is generally used during that timeframe to elevate the importance of the project in everyone’s eyes. Often, for example, the outgoing president is asked to oversee (or asks to finish) a capital campaign — and donors do like to see continuity. Such an arrangement affords the new CEO the luxury of not having to deal with those demanding duties while he or she is still onboarding. But you don’t want the former CEO to have a title that makes it appear that he or she is a retread on the downline staff roster. The title president emeritus removes the awkwardness of being a peer to former subordinates.

A third reason for offering the title is to give the former president a “platform” of respectability — a slightly elevated vantage point from which to continue to write or speak with authority about various ministry matters — past, present, and future. One of the things a lot of CEOs who leave a leadership position say they suddenly realize they don’t have — and didn’t consider that it would disappear so quickly — is that metaphorical stage. “I have a decade of experience in ministry and organizational leadership, and my opinion on things used to matter when I was the CEO,” one former leader told me. “But now it seems that without a title, my comments are immaterial.” Of course, what is written or spoken needs to parallel the position of the current leadership of the organization that is conferring the title.

A president emeritus should be appointed by the board but work solely under the direction of the current president. The board could annually decide, with counsel from the current president, if the title should be retained. But even so, the board should at least have an agreement with the president emeritus that specifies under what conditions any open-ended title would be revoked. Some Citygate Network members go so far as having a written, signed agreement and job description for the president emeritus. 

So, does your organization want or need a president emeritus — which will ultimately be you? Your board — with input from you — has to determine if the outgoing leader still has something to offer, knows the direction the new leader is going, and can accelerate your organization’s progress in a way that brings everyone along.