Passing the Baton
Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series—Vol. VI
Dec 2, 2022

By: Jamie Millard

Read more about our Executive Director leadership transition in our Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series, where we candidly share how we’ve approached our process of executive leadership transition — a process that centers transparency, prevents harm, and is rooted in racial equity.

Jamie Millard sits down with Lars Leafblad, Pollen’s founder and co-founder and partner of Ballinger | Leafblad, to discuss passing the baton, trends in leadership transitions, and his own hopes and dreams for Pollen’s future.  Special thanks to Levi Weinhagen who recorded this casual conversation. Listen to the full conversation below.



Passing the Baton

There’s a special area on a relay race track where you’re required to hand off the baton to the next runner known as the “changeover box.” It’s a 20-meter area situated right at the starting line of the leg. It extends 10 meters before and 10 meters after the starting line.

Lars knew I would be digging into the complex feelings that come with passing the baton in a leadership transition. He went through this himself when he handed Pollen over to Meg Lionel Murphy and me back in 2013. Lars might not outwardly identify as a creative, but he is a visual, creative thinker. And to prepare for this chat, he looked up videos of relay races and noticed some striking and applicable observations:

  • The shorter the race the faster the handoff.
  • The longer the race the more time of joint-pacing and overlap during the handoff.
  • The camera pans to the next runner, leaving the previous runner out of frame.
  • After the handoff, the previous runner is surrounded by the other previous runners in a fellowship of camaraderie and support.

Ruby and I have had a pretty long handoff period, which makes sense given the long race Pollen is running. As the camera prepares to pan toward Ruby, Lars offered some advice to me before I pass the executive director baton:

  • Feel all the feelings: relief, gratitude, joy, sadness, anxiety, regret, hope. 
  • The emotions will continue even after the adrenaline of the transition is complete. There can be a surprise that comes with the emotions bubbling up as you watch the person who follows you continue to lead. 
  • Do you have to go quietly off into the forest? It would serve all of us to find ways to retain the wisdom, involvement of previous leaders.


Trends in Leadership Transitions

Lars has personally guided hundreds of leadership transitions over the course of his 15 years as an expert in executive search in the civic and social sector. It was important for us at Pollen to share our process for this leadership transition, but we also wanted to hear from Lars about what he’s seen at the macro level across many organizations and many sectors. What trends is Lars seeing emerge?

  • An increase in how much time organizations give to impending leadership transitions.
  • A longer window of transition planning (both publicly and internally).
  • Loss of “walk the hallways” effect: The majority of exploratory interviews are now done over Zoom and it’s impacting how a candidate perceives the experience.
  • More time desired between jobs. There’s less certainty when an offer is extended as to when the incoming candidate would be ready to start in the role. 
  • More expectations on how a board will support the incoming leader.
  • Increase in contemplating the use of an interim executive leader to give the organization a pause between what was and what could be.


If Lars had a magic wand and could bibbidi-bobbidi-boo a change in leadership transitions, what would he wave into existence? Lars had many wishes:

    • Moving leadership transitions from a fear, scarcity mindset into a growth, abundance opportunity. Transitions are normal. Boards and executive teams can think of leadership transitions not as risk mitigation, but instead as generative growth. 
    • Leadership transition as a way to invite the community and the team into change. Leadership transitions can be used to explore, to pull threads, to be invitational, expansive. It’s a moment of vulnerability that you can step into. 
    • More transparency. Hiring organizations should provide incoming candidates with a full picture of the opportunities and challenges in a new role. Presenting an opportunity that is compelling and transparent and vulnerable helps ensure candidates are better equipped to do that work to their full ability.  
    • References as a launch accelerant. Thinking of references beyond positive validation or risk mitigation, but instead learning how to better support an incoming leader to be most effective. What are the growth edges? 
    • Recruitment can be more human. Recruit as you would like to be recruited. Recruiting can be more humane: timely, transparent, compassionate. How can everyone not invited to take that baton leave with an element of growth? 
    • Reimburse finalist candidates for participating in the interview process. Move recruitment from an extractive to an equitable exchange. Finalists are rarely compensated for the hours and hours of time and energy they give to a process.
    • A search can be more than a search. People are watching.  Boards and staff can use the attention around transitions to further the organization’s impact. Invite people to be part of your change and transition story.


Hopes and Dreams

I love to hear Lars’s reflections on how Pollen has changed and grown since he founded it, and what he sees as Pollen’s future. I couldn’t agree more with his hopes and dreams. 

How stories change hearts and minds and behaviors

“In a growing era of division, we’re in a moment where Pollen is more needed than ever. I’m looking forward to watching how Pollen will continue to lift up the voices of the helpers—those who are willing to ask for help and those who are confronting an injustice, a dilemma.”

Stories of growth, change, and humility

“I hope to see more stories that show the individual experience of growing and changing and beginning to see the world differently. Stories of when we as humans are vulnerable in our beliefs and how we  align our beliefs with our actions.”

Passing the Baton to Ruby

With the gift of Pollen’s long transition came the opportunity for Ruby and I to have more time together in our own “changeover box.” But for the past six months, I’ve been asking myself how best we could use this time. Ruby has been at Pollen for three years, and knows just about every aspect of our work, so there’s almost no “technical” training needed.  And let’s be real — the wonky job of an executive director is best learned by doing and figuring out your own way. So, here are some of the commitments we landed on for how we wanted to use this time together:

  • Finish and start replenished. I didn’t want to cross the end of my tenure exhausted, crawling over the finish line, and Ruby didn’t want to start her tenure already winded and overwhelmed. Avoiding those outcomes takes a lot of mindfulness and boundaries. The demands of a transition can become all-consuming. We have often checked in with each other and reminded each other of this important commitment. 
  • Surround ourselves with support. We each identified what kind of support we would need and equipped ourselves accordingly. For example, we both have been working with our own leadership coaches, carving out time to focus on our physical health, and asking for emotional support from our team, friends, and family. 
  • “Passing-the-Baton Fridays.” Ruby came up with a list of things she was curious about and wanted to discuss with me before I left. Every Friday for the last two months we’ve spent  meaningful time together exploring a range of transition and leadership topics from that list. 
  • Let it be easy, make it fun. Thanks to my leadership coach, I’ve had a guiding refrain throughout this transition. “How can I let this be easy? How can I make this fun?” I really wanted this time with Ruby to feel fun, meaningful, enjoyable. We’ve spent our Friday sessions walking through art galleries, eating delicious food, roaming bookstores, wandering the lush greenery of the Como Conservatory—all while discussing important transition topics like board management, organizational finances, and leadership styles.


The Handoff

Thank you to the entire Pollen community for being part of this handoff. Ruby, myself, and the whole team have felt cheered on and supported. As Lars said in our chat, change is an invitation for growth — and you are all invited to bloom with Pollen. I can’t wait to see what the community and Pollen keep manifesting together.

Join Pollen at Malcolm Yards on Monday, December 5th, from 4-6pm to celebrate and thank Jamie for her time at Pollen. 

Make a donation in honor of Jamie and Ruby and to support this leadership transition.


What’s up next in “Bloom: Pollen’s Growth & Executive Director Transition Series”: Stay tuned for our next installment on December 7th .

Listen here for more about Pollen’s leadership transition on the I So Appreciate You! podcast.

Posted by Pollen Midwest on Dec 2, 2022
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