The following is a conversation between Josh Wright, outgoing CEO, and Bridgette Gray, incoming CEO of ideas42, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.


Denver: Often overlooked and underappreciated are the intricacies of a successful CEO transition. Today, we’re joined by Josh Wright, the outgoing CEO of ideas42, and Bridgette Gray, the incoming CEO. With their combined insights, we’ll explore the challenges and strategies involved in ensuring a smooth leadership change in a nonprofit organization.

Josh has led ideas42 through significant growth and impact, while Bridgette brings a fresh perspective and a wealth of experience to her new role. Together, they’ll share their experiences, plans, and advice on making a CEO transition, not just a change in leadership, but an opportunity for renewal and progress.

Josh Wright, outgoing CEO, and Bridgette Gray, incoming CEO of ideas42

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Josh and Bridgette.

Bridgette: Thank you.

Josh: Thank you.

Denver: Josh, let me begin with you. Tell listeners about ideas42 and the mission of the organization.

Josh: ideas42 is really focused on using behavioral science. So, we think of that as the way humans make decisions and do or don’t follow through on those decisions to improve the world.

So, we work on a wide range of social issues, everything from education to healthcare to international development. And it’s really about using this great research that’s been developed in behavioral science over the last 30, 40 years and getting it applied in the real world in policy and governments and businesses and nonprofits.

I’ve been fortunate to be leading ideas42 for the last 12 plus years. And I think it’s really important for leaders to leave too early rather than too late. And I felt like I still had energy and excitement and commitment to the organization. But I thought: I’m not sure I will in two or three years, so I should start the process now.

Denver: Fantastic. Josh, what factors influenced your decision to step down at this juncture?

Josh: I’ve been fortunate to be leading ideas42 for the last 12 plus years. And I think it’s really important for leaders to leave too early rather than too late. And I felt like I still had energy and excitement and commitment to the organization. But I thought: I’m not sure I will in two or three years, so I should start the process now.

And also realizing that I look at ideas42 and the problems we face and the problems we’re trying to tackle through a certain lens. And I think it’s really important for organizations to get fresh perspectives and have new leaders who look at things in a new way.

Denver: Bridgette, can you provide us a bit about your background and what attracted you to this position?

Bridgette: Yeah. So, my background has been in social impact. It’s been primarily around workforce and helping people get to the careers that give them economic, social mobility. And what attracted me to ideas42 is: It’s an organization where I have the ability to do all the things holistically in one place.

When you start to look at all the things that Josh just named around focus areas, I get to do that in one place. I am so interested in the behavioral approach. My career has always been around people. Josh has said before, “Oh, you’ve done behavioral science, you just didn’t know you were doing behavioral science because you didn’t have a methodology of thinking about it.”

But that’s how I’ve always done my work. I also like the fact that the organization has had a 15-year track record that has been really successful. It’s a leader in the B-Sci space. That tells me a lot about the people, tells me a lot about how it was led, tells me about the organization.

And then the other thing is I have an opportunity to be able to see a vision for the next iteration of who we are, and I’m picking up where Josh left off. And being able to pick that up and run it; I absolutely love that. And the people are amazing. The culture is amazing.

Denver: Passing the baton. What was the interview process like, Bridgette?

Bridgette: Oh, it was great.

Denver: You got the job. So, it had to be pretty good, I guess.

Bridgette: It was great. I had so many opportunities to engage with the board in multiple ways that the process was very seamless, but I also had a chance to talk to the team members, and along the way too, and it gave me more insight into how they show up for their work, how they thought about the organization.

They do everything for the good of the group. They do everything for the good of the world. You can’t ask for a better process than that. And it was short. It wasn’t a very long process, which is also impactful. I remember the day I got the call.

Two board members called me, and they said, “We wanted to tell you that we feel like we just got the best gift for Christmas.” And when someone tells you that, it’s like “Oh, I’m in the right place.”

Denver: That is great. Well, maybe the process was pretty short, Josh, because you had spent a lot of time on succession planning. How did the organization prepare for this transition and, you know, ensure for continuity and stability?

Josh: Yeah. I told the board with a significant runway or lead time from when I actually wanted to have handed the organization off, so we had plenty of time to do a diligent process around the search, using a great search firm, planning out when Bridgette or the new CEO… before we knew it was Bridgette…would come in, you know, how long that process should likely be; to think about optionality in that process also, and really have time to gather forward all the documents and decisions that the person would be making in one kind of consolidated way so they could review them but then ask lots of questions.

So, it was really just, you know, having some time, not doing anything under duress. I feel like finding a new CEO is a little bit like buying or selling a house. You never want to do that under a tight timeframe because it just gives you flexibility to make the right decision.

We were fortunate that those searches went relatively quickly, and the search firm was great in helping us identify Bridgette. And then we did want to have a relatively quick interview process in terms of… there were multiple rounds of interviews, but we didn’t want it to drag on and have that person wondering, “Where am I in this process?”

Denver: Yeah, yeah. And also tells you a lot about the organization, how quickly the process can go. Because if the interview process goes well and is quick and fast, it tells you the organization does things well and does them quick and fast.

And when it lingers and lingers and lingers, it’s not the exception to the rule, it is the rule in terms of how your organization is going to operate. Josh, tell us a little bit about some of the communication strategies that you implemented to inform stakeholders, and particularly staff and donors, about this transition.

Josh: Yeah, much like the other parts of the transition, we just sort of mapped it out, knowing that we needed to tell internal stakeholders first, but ask them to hold that in confidence, and then have one-on-one conversations and emails with important donors and partners. You know, ideas42 is with stakeholders. We have donors, but also, we don’t run programs ourselves.

Denver: Yeah.

Josh: We’re really improving policies or existing programs or helping people design new products. So, we have as many partners that we need to check in with and make sure that they’re aware of the transition and just, you know, being methodical about that, explaining why Bridgette.

And I had given a little bit of a heads-up to some key funders during the process of going through the search because you don’t want people out there seeing a search happening and wondering like, “No one told us about that.”

So, there’s kind of the two stages of like “Tell everyone the search is happening, and then tell them about the great, amazing person we have coming in and taking over.”

“It’s rooted in a genuine like for each other. Josh and I have become great friends. And it’s not often that that happens, but that means that there’s no ego present for either one of us. What we’re doing is for the good of the group, is for the good of the organization, is for the good of our work.”

Denver: Absolutely. So, Bridgette, what’s this transition been like? What have been the things that have been most helpful to you, and what have been some of the challenges that you faced?

Bridgette: So, the transition has been fantastic. I think, being able to show up where every detail has been thought about… I’ve never experienced that before. I’ve seen transitions from CEO to CEO before, and I’ve seen them not go really well.

And then this one, it was a very thoughtful process. It was a process that was not one-sided just from Josh. It was the entire organization coming to the table to make sure that I had everything I needed from an onboarding perspective, and it’s still happening.

That says a lot about the leadership and how the people think about people. It also has been one of those where Josh and I have been extremely intentional about showing this collective front for the entire organization. I think that’s really important. But the thing is it’s rooted in our values.

It’s rooted in a genuine like for each other. Josh and I have become great friends. And it’s not often that that happens, but that means that there’s no ego present for either one of us. What we’re doing is for the good of the group, is for the good of the organization, is for the good of our work.

We were very intentional about making sure we had regular check-ins. So, we check in weekly. Josh is an advisor to me right now. That’s not often a new leader coming in and an outgoing leader will play a role like that, but that’s the role we’ve played.

We don’t always agree about things. Our approaches might look really different. We might lead differently. But at the root of who we are, it’s about our value system and how we show up. And Josh and I had this conversation recently where when you think about things that may not have worked, it’s the things you don’t know about each other.

So, no one knows my learning style. And so, me coming in and being onboarded, there may be particular ways I would’ve liked certain information. The reality though is the information is the information regardless of how it was given to me.

And so, I think that the way Josh has set the tone across the organization has been great. We spent time doing town halls. We spent time making sure that he participated in some of those, and then he would hop off of those calls so I could have my one-on-one time with people.

And then, across the organization, we sent joint messages to make sure that people see this as a real partnership and teamwork. That tells me that once Josh is fully gone from the organization, he’s not fully gone from the organization. I still have him available to me, and that’s a beautiful transition.

Denver: So, Bridgette, when you came on board, what was your thinking about the role that Josh, the incumbent, would play in terms of trying to make you successful? Did you want him there on site, or did you feel better if you just took over from day one?

Bridgette: Great question. So, I had the options of, and this came from Josh and the board: Do I want Josh there for a period of time, or would I like for him to leave the day I come in, and I’m like, “No, I want him to be here for a period of time. It is important to me to learn. I’m a learner, so I need to understand.

And so, we think about them as option one, option two, door one, door two. I took door two. And door two meant that Josh would be here for a period of about four months to help with the transition.

During that time, I got up-to-speed pretty quickly, so we pivoted a little bit on some of the visibility because we saw that the team was getting confused about who they should come to.

And again, we want to do what’s good for the group. So, Josh, again, the humility, took a step backwards and said, “I’m going to take a step backwards. I won’t be visible, but I’m still here as an advisor and support.”

And it helped the team feel like they understood  who they should go to. So, we didn’t want to create confusion. But no, I took option two, and I wanted to keep Josh on; and even after four months, Josh is still available to me. That’s the thing. It doesn’t stop when he leaves. It continues to follow through.

And I think anyone transitioning leadership, I actually think it is an egotistical thing… and I’m going to just be straightforward… to want someone to leave immediately when you come in. If you can establish a place of trust and be genuine around your set of values, then you should be able to navigate together, for the good of the organization.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. They are a wealth of knowledge. And why would you not want to tap that because you can really make things a lot easier and speed things up by tapping into it.

Bridgette: A hundred percent.

Denver: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about the organizational culture. I mean, how you align and fit in that culture, some of the adjustments that you have had to make, or the adjustments that maybe the staff will need to make.

Bridgette: Yeah. So, I think my biggest adjustment has been: I’m used to running really, really large teams, like teams that are actually larger than ideas42. And because we are B-Sci, there’s a lot of debating, a lot of conversation back and forth.

And that has been an adjustment for me because I’ve been used to being extremely decisive and like, “This is what we need to do.” And I’m taking a step backwards because I really do appreciate the value that people bring to the table.

And I don’t want to mute someone’s voice because I’m ready to move. I’ve had to also learn to slow down. I move very quickly. And the team is not necessarily a team that moves as quickly as I do. So, I’ve had to take some steps backwards, but they’ve also helped me take steps backwards.

They’ve been very good about saying things like, “Why are you doing this right now? You know you don’t have to do this right now. Maybe we should think about this.” And I’m like, “You know what? You are right. I’m rushing and moving some things a little bit faster.”

And so, the team has been very welcoming. We’ve been going through a revisioning type of process right now. We’ve been thinking about how we’re going to revamp our website. We’ve been thinking about a strategic plan that we want to do.

And so, in the end, the team has been very welcoming and open, but they’ve also been coming along for the ride, and they’re waiting to see what the next is going to look like.

Denver: Yeah, yeah. Would you say it’s more of a consensus decision-making than what you’ve been used to in terms of everybody having their input and feeling that they need to be heard before decisions are made, which you know, is great to do? It does slow you down a little bit, but it’s a different operating style. Would that be a fair assessment or not?

Bridgette: It would. I’ve always been inclusive of people. I’m a people-centric leader. People actually really, really matter to me. I’m also a very decisive person, so I’m not a waverer in decisions. So, it has slowed me down a little bit.

And there are places where consensus is necessary;  then there are places where people are looking to you to actually make the decision, and there’s been a pretty equal balance of that.

“And if you say: We’re doing X, Y, and Z, and you don’t give them the why, then it’s not going to go well because they’re going to go half-hearted. So, I think those are the two things really: the people, you know, the team, and the culture are the things that I feel most proud of…”

Denver: Yeah. Josh, as you reflect on your time as CEO, what would you consider your most significant legacy and contribution to ideas42?

Josh: To me, I think it’s really the team. ideas42 is made up of incredibly talented people. And I think it really is that… it’s the team and culture. You know, we’re super fortunate– not all nonprofits have this. We just get very talented people in terms of intelligence and capability onto the team. You know, people that could be in the private sector making a lot more money at places like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. So, the team is incredibly powerful.

And then, the culture, which I think, you know, Bridgette’s a great fit with the culture and is also going to adjust the culture a little bit. And it is a culture that I don’t think of it as consensus, I think of it as we have to explain the why. People are very smart. They want a debate.

And if you say: We’re doing X, Y, and Z, and you don’t give them the why, then it’s not going to go well because they’re going to go half-hearted. So, I think those are the two things really: the people, you know, the team, and the culture are the things that I feel most proud of and I think will live on through the organization, and really the driver impact. And one of the things I’m most proud of is, you know, having Bridgette take over and be able to pass the baton to her. I consider her part of the team and that amazing talent we have.

Denver: What’s next for you, Josh?

Josh: I’m taking the summer off, not doing anything for the summer, but I will start a fellowship.

Denver: Looks like a good start to me.

Josh: Yeah. Yeah. Right after Labor Day, I’ll start a fellowship at the Kahneman-Treisman Behavioral Science and Policy Center at Princeton University. And I’m going to spend some time writing an applied behavioral science book, and then starting to talk to people about the next song in my career will be after that fellowship.

Denver: Fantastic. Bridgette, what specific support do you expect and need from the board of directors during this transition period and beyond?

Bridgette: Great question. So, I have another part of the onboarding process was carving out three board members that are actually my go-to for this transition. So, I have an opportunity to bounce things off of them, which I did just recently. And that’s been really helpful.

What I need from the board, and we’ve agreed on this, is we want to slow down for a second and not add any new board members right now until we really work this year out and understand what our future vision is going to look like.

We’re re-imagining some of our work right now, and that also means re-imagining how the board is structured. We’re also wanting to do a strategic plan, and the strategic plan is going to drive what the future needs of the board will look like– the makeup, composition of the board.

And the board has been extremely supportive. They have actually said to me, “We’re taking a step back. Just go lead, and tell us what you need.” And I love that. What I want from them, for future board, is I do want a board that’s 100% connected like the board is now.

I want them to be deeply involved in our work, not in a micromanaging way, but in full knowledge of the work that we do. This can be a lonely role, and I don’t want to be in a lonely space. And so, I like having this transition committee, but I like having the support of the board.

One of the things I want to add too is, you know, you asked a question about the team, and I’m a big risk taker, and the board knows that, too. I’m not risk averse at all. I actually like it, and I really want to help the team become a little bit more risky in the way that they think about things.

I’m also very accountable to decisions. So, if something doesn’t work, I have no issues apologizing, going back, saying: That was the wrong decision.  But in being accountable for that risk. And I’ve had to have that conversation with the board, too. There might be some things we test that we’ve never tested before.

But let’s be okay with that because you don’t know until you try it. And so, the board has been extremely supportive.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah, you have to have that mindset if you’re going to be a risk taker, you know, and just to be able to say, Okay. Otherwise you won’t take any more risks, so you just be accountable and you have to let them know and say: Not everything’s going to work out, you know, but we’re going to make a few big bets here, and a couple will pay off. We’ll be quite happy.

Any early thoughts on where you would like to take the organization over the next five years? I don’t want to preempt your strategic plan, but maybe just a little glimmer.

Bridgette: Okay. I really like you, so I’m going to give you a glimpse. I really want us to start to think about the diversification of our revenue. Right now, you know, we’re heavily dependent on philanthropy, which most nonprofits are, and obviously some government contracts. I really want us to think about what I call “unsold inventory.”

What are the things that we’re doing that we could actually be charging people for? I think we have some very beautiful bodies of work that in some ways I think about them from a productized standpoint. And so, how do we create an earned revenue strategy that we don’t leave any dollars on the table because it’s not a philanthropic opportunity?

And so, that’s one of the things. And so, I’ve been looking at our work from three lenses. One is really around our focus areas and how they approach their work, which is heavily driven by philanthropy. The second way I’ve been thinking about our work has been through a social ventures piece, which is an earned revenue– What are the, again, unsold inventory that we have?

And the third has been standing up a behavioral science innovation lab. We are the best in the business; then we should actually be out here training other people how to be the best in the business. And there’s so much we can do with our innovation.

We have some, as Josh said, really talented people on our team. The founding executive director, Piyush Tantia, is still on the team, and he has such a wealth of knowledge, and I want him to run this B-Sci innovation lab and stand it up and teach internally, but teach externally, but drive convenings around our work.

That’s where our published works would come from. And so, those are the three ways I’ve been kind of thinking about it. But it gives us a diversification of revenue, so we’re not completely backed into restricted dollars. We have a chance to be a little bit freer with how we can think about our money.

Denver: Yeah, that’s really smart. You know, ironically, some organizations I know put a complete focus on earned revenue and then got crushed during the pandemic, and they just realized that nobody was coming to their museum.

Bridgette: No.

Denver: And they couldn’t sell anything. So, you can have enough diversification because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and I love the consulting aspect of it because a nonprofit consulting with your expertise, it really increases your impact that much more, too.

You become sort of a Johnny Appleseed and take the best practices and just share them with the entire sector and make a little bit of money at the same time. That’s fantastic.

Finally, and this question’s for each one of you. Any closing words of advice or insights that you could share with other nonprofit organizations who are about to embark upon a CEO transition? I’ll begin with you, Josh.

Josh: Yeah. We talked early on, Denver, about a lot of different details of the plan and box-checking and making sure this is being communicated. And not surprisingly, ideas42 is a behavioral science place. So, I think the thing to also think about is: What are the psychological aspects of what’s going on?

So, we give a lot of care and feeding to that, everything from the way we conducted the town halls, to Bridgette and I thinking about building trust. Psychology teaches us on trust: to build trust, you have to first reveal vulnerability. And I realized as a leader, Bridgette’s like the new person.

So, I have to show vulnerability first. And then Bridgette can/will reciprocate. Reciprocity is a very powerful tool in behavioral science… She’ll reciprocate with that same vulnerability.

And I think that at the core of why this has worked so well between Bridgette and I is the values, like common values that Bridgette mentioned earlier, but also this trust aspect, and just making sure that you take some time to get to know each other, understand your stories with the outgoing and incoming CEO, and really what makes them tick.

And that building of trust, I think, is the most critical thing because then it’s easy to compromise. It’s easy to adjust. You have to be flexible. We had one detailed plan going in, and then we adjusted it because Bridgette needed something different.

And it is all about: How do you make Bridgette successful? And that has to really come from a trust of Bridgette trusting me and me trusting Bridgette.

Denver: Yeah, that’s a great insight. Too often I think we run down the to-do list and try to get done what we need to get done and don’t do the upfront of building the relationship, which is really going to be the most important thing.

Josh: Exactly.

Denver: Bridgette?

Bridgette: Yeah. I’m actually going to pick up on that last piece about trust because one of the things that I knew coming in the doors, but also actually felt it, was Josh wanted me to be successful. You know, when someone is leaving… sometimes it’s very difficult even when people make decisions to leave, they don’t know how to let go.

And, a new person is coming in and very anxious to get their thoughts across to the board. That wasn’t the case here. And so, being able to know that this outgoing leader wants me to be successful is critical.

So, I would say one of the pieces of advice I would have would be for people to pressure-test themselves, like: What are the motives of how you’re engaging with the person that is going out and the person coming in?

You have the pressure test that you have to ask yourself certain questions to make sure you do really want to see the value and good in this individual, but you also want to see them successful.

And ultimately, if you want to see them successful, it’s because you’re connected to the organization, and you want to see the organization successful.

When Josh talked about his legacy, I think the beautiful thing that he’s done, and I said this to the org, was leave me this beautiful group of people to continue to move forward with. And that comes from a place of really, really loving the work that you do. You can’t overemphasize the trust.

The other thing would be humility. You have to show up in this very humble way. To come in and want to reimagine work that someone else has done could be a gut punch for some people. That has not been the case here.

Josh has been like, ” Just tell me what you want to do, share with me, and we can just talk it through.” He might have a difference of thought but together collectively, we’ve landed in the same place. So, trust, humility, and genuine care and concern about the individual, I think, would be ideal, and getting rid of the ego. There’s no place for ego.

Denver: No place for ego. And I think the word that really touches me there is “genuine” because you can’t fake it because the team will know that it’s being baked, and then that just permeates through the organization, and there’s a tension that you do not want to have. Just great insights.

For listeners interested in learning more about the organization, the website is ideas42.org, and that’s the numeral 42. Josh and Bridgette, I want to thank you so much for being here today. It was such a pleasure and delight to have you on the show.

Bridgette: Thank you.

Josh: Thank you, Denver.

Bridgette: Thank you, Josh.


Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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