The keys to effective succession planning

The term “succession planning” spawns thoughts of Fortune 50 CEOs finding a new CEO to fill their big office, earn their huge salary, and continue along the Fortune 50 path. However, succession planning is a critical component of any size organization. And not-for-profit organizations, with their unique circumstances, mission focus, and volunteer dependency, need to be sure they are mapped for success in their key leadership roles. Leadership transitions can be stressful and anxiety provoking or they can be thoughtful and mission enhancing. The difference lies in the board’s approach to successful succession planning and a mindful process that begins long before key board member or executive changes.

On the board level, the governance map should have succession planning inherent in its organization chart. Strong boards have ‘logical’ paths to leadership – including spots like vice-chair or secretary that historically tend to move up to chair. Putting the right people in these roles is critical because many times folks nominated to these roles have no interest in moving up the chain of command, while the organization clearly intended them to do so. It’s important to make sure that all understand the logical transition through the upcoming years and that decisions were made to have these roles filled by volunteers ready to serve. The board has to commit to manage the transition intentionally and purposefully – it must be addressed consistently and constantly – not when the calendar announces that board terms are expiring.

Often a board and/or executive team will see potential in a board member. It’s important that the organization realizes its own responsibility towards enriching this candidate’s profile and helping in the development. Perhaps this board member should join committees different from those that mirror their usual talent. A future board chair who is a CPA professionally is a natural talent on the finance committee. However, for this individual to be successful as a board leader, he or she may need development or event experience as well. Assigning individuals to committee work based on their potential, rather than current talents, is important in proper succession planning.

No one becomes a perfect board leader without support and training. Be sure tomorrow’s leaders are well trained, exposed, coached, and developed. It’s important they begin to develop relationships as necessary, attend important events, and form alliances with staff and donors. An organization needs to identify leadership development opportunities for all board members to ensure the organization has the bench strength needed for easy transitions and a strong future path.

A strong organization documents their succession plan just as they would document an investment strategy, fundraising plan, or the details behind a capital campaign. It shouldn’t be something only discussed behind closed doors. It’s not a secret that board leaders accept terms that are for a finite number of years, so it certainly shouldn’t be a secret that the board is planning to properly manage these roles given the impact they have on the strength of the organization.

Another important facet of succession planning at the board level is to be prepared for immediate and unexpected board openings. In the business world it is understood that people leave jobs, move cities, and have  family and medical issues arise. These events are even more common in the not-for-profit volunteer arena. Organizations can lose board members almost overnight due to job changes, family events or other competing responsibilities. When this happens, the ‘two or four year plan’ that has been addressed at the executive level suddenly doesn’t work. At these times, a ‘perfect right now’ candidate is needed. While not ideal, these situations happen to many organizations. Organizations operating in a crisis mode cannot bounce back as quickly or smoothly as those that prepare for this. Many well governed organizations dedicate a portion of each year’s board agenda to identifying ‘crisis candidates’ for each key leadership role. Thinking about these individuals and the attributes needed for a successful leader while not in panic mode leads to more responsible governance and leadership transition. This step is an important component of a healthy organization’s leadership management.

All board roles need to be assigned and earned based on characteristics, key attributes, and skills needed to help the organization grow. Succession planning success is more likely when leaders are assigned based on their resume and experience, not because they are well known, always around, and kind to others. Those attributes are great, too, but responsible boards are created based on the skills needed to move an organization forward. For example, every board needs some members well versed in finance, marketing, fundraising, relationships, and other skills.  A leadership team of six great fundraisers without any finance experience won’t be as successful as a well-rounded team. Focusing on attributes, with assigned responsibilities and commitments for each board member, is critical to long term success.

In conclusion, a successful organization must include thoughtful succession planning. Making this a key component of a board’s annual agenda allows for a sustainable, adaptable, and more comprehensive organization. For more information or for a presentation designed for your board to talk through these issues, contact our team today.