In John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, he said:
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
I love these words, and they still ring true today. As we look to the future, our country will prepare again to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. Similarly, in the social sector, every leader must eventually leave their organization and new leadership will take the reins. In fact, a recent survey shows that 48% of nonprofit CEOs expect to transition in the next five years. In anticipation of this game-changing trend, we have worked with many funders and leading capacity-building organizations over the past few months to help them prepare. [See the presentation from our most recent training session – The Good, Bad, and The Ugly: Succession Planning & Executive Transitions]
Based on our work on executive transitions, the ideal scenario is an intentional and positive process, such as a succession planning. Some experts even suggest an organization’s overall health could be measured by how seamlessly it weathers an executive transition. Much like Kennedy suggested, in order for the social sector to continue abolishing poverty, improving quality of life and advancing democracy, we must plan ahead to ensure that we have the governance, plans and talent in place to ensure an effective transfer of power, knowledge and vision.
However, in our practice, we have found succession planning is underutilized as a risk and talent management tool and is often misunderstood by staff and board members. To help open channels of communication between board and staff, we want to dispel some myths and break down the process. First, succession planning should not be utilized just for the top job at an organization, but any job where service would be compromised by a difficult transition. Second, succession planning should consider both types of change – planned and emergency transition. Third, many view succession planning as a negative task because of the emotional toll, but transitions happen for all types of reasons and can ultimately have a positive impact on an organization. It can be a time of opportunity to commit to and act on expanding the capacity of the organization. Finally, many organizations mistakenly treat succession as a time-limited event rather than a transition, which is slower and requires effort before, during and after the executive leaves the organization. Taken together, the goal of succession planning is to build a stronger, more stable organization.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has published a series of excellent resources and guides to assist staff and boards with succession planning. They make the process simple and straightforward. There are also a number of amazing templates that are ready-made for any nonprofit to customize. We also have included our sample succession and recruitment timeline for consideration:
In our work, we have found five key themes to help guide your efforts:
1 – Board Leadership Bridges the Transition
Many people assume that staff hold things together during a transition, but the board actually needs to lean in during this time. It is part of their governance role. Because staff need to stay connected to their day-to-day work, board members need to lead succession planning, executive recruitment and transition – with staff support.
2 – Early Planning Is Key to Success
Many nonprofits wait too long to start planning. We firmly believe that “conflict exists in ambiguity.” Planning not only prepares board and staff, but it also gives them confidence to execute a consistent and thoughtful set of next steps.
3 – It Is an Emotional Earthquake
Succession and executive transition are both art and a science – even when you have a plan in place, it can be an emotional rollercoaster. Our best advice is to be very intentional about over-communicating, giving people space to share concerns and addressing any issues head-on to prevent escalation.
4 – Transition Is More Than Onboarding
While many nonprofits have an onboarding process for board and staff members, executives, especially those new to an issue or a community, need at least a 90-day transition plan with formal and informal interactions to get to know the organization and build long-term relationships with staff, board and the community. We also like having the former executive involved in the transition process to help fill in any gaps.
5 – The More You Plan, the Better it Will Go
We have all heard about succession or executive transitions that got ugly. The only way to reduce the risk of this is to plan ahead and ensure everyone is on the same page about what to do and how to resolve issues when they inevitably arise. We have included a Readiness Checklist for board and staff to discuss.
We encourage social sector organizations of any size to review our Readiness Checklist, schedule this topic at your next board meeting or assign it to the governance committee as a key priority for consideration. Some staff and boards worry that discussing succession planning may send the wrong signal – that the organization or the person wants to move on. In our opinion, the only signal that it sends is that the board and staff are responsible stewards of the organization and are committed to serving the community without interruption. As always, we welcome your thoughts and experiences regarding succession planning and executive transition.