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Take 4 Steps to Prepare your Team for Succession

By Deborah Legrove

Sustainability. This subject is much on the minds of management and boards of associations these days.

A fragile economy and cautious consumers means many associations are focusing greater attention on fundraising and member retention. Yet there is another, equally important, element of organizational health that often does not receive as much attention as it deserves – leadership sustainability.

The departure of a key executive or board member could magnify an already stressful environment and even fatally destabilize an organization. This is why every association – no matter what size – should prepare for succession.

If the concept of a succession plan brings to mind a vision of too much work in the short term for a distant payback, keep in mind the significance of its role: a process for delivering leadership sustainability.

By preparing for the departure of key personnel, management and board members can provide reassurance on several levels – especially during uncertain times – to the entire organization and its stakeholders. A succession plan can provide comfort, for example, by delivering: 

  • an approach for ensuring the organization is able to continue functioning in the event of the unplanned absence of key staff members or volunteers;
  • defined procedures and timeframes for replacing long-term leaders in the future - this is especially important as baby boomer leaders retire at an accelerating rate and associations must compete for leadership talent from a dwindling supply;
  • a leadership development process that will meet the future needs of the organization; and.
  • the skills and experience necessary to address challenges and effectively deliver services and programs.

Despite these urgencies, a survey of nonprofit leaders conducted last year by crawfordconnect found that only 25% had a formal written succession policy in place. This issue is too important to leave “up in the air.” In order to ensure the leadership sustainability of your organization, following are four steps that can help your team plan for succession.

1. Make it a shared Executive/Board responsibility

In order to ensure the continuing operation of an organization, succession planning is, in effect, a critical duty of the executive and the board of directors. When the Executive Director – and sole fundraiser -– of a small nonprofit abruptly resigned, the organization was thrown into turmoil. With no succession plan and no staff or board members prepared for the ED’s role, the organization’s program management, operating grants, fundraising revenue and donor relationships were immediately at risk.  A year later, the organization continues to struggle.

Incorporating succession planning as a direct accountability in the ED/CEO’s contract or job description can help to emphasize its importance. This could include establishing responsibility for the leader’s own succession plan as well as key employees. Doing so reinforces the importance of this issue and ensures the topic is included in the agendas of board meetings.

At the same time, including responsibility for management and board succession within board member job descriptions also serves to reinforce the importance of leadership sustainability. One president of a charitable organization encouraged the board of directors to consider this important issue from her perspective: “When I win the lottery, I won’t be back so you need to plan for my replacement!”

When the time comes to develop these plans, appointing an ad hoc committee to assume responsibility for succession planning can help to make the process inclusive and efficient.

2. Start with an emergency leadership plan

If no succession plan currently exists, it’s advantageous to start with an emergency leadership plan. This is a written document that outlines what steps the organization will take if an individual who serves a critical role in the organization is unable to carry out his or her responsibilities. One nonprofit’s long-time Executive Director, for example, experienced a sudden illness and ended up taking sick leave for almost a year. While senior staff members assumed her responsibilities, they were unprepared for this role because there was no emergency plan in place. It took some time for these staff members to understand and manage the ED’s numerous duties. Sadly, this uncertainty cost the organization numerous sponsors, donors and board members.

The role of an emergency leadership plan is to ensure that services and programs continue to be delivered and that essential leadership and/or administrative functions are carried out. Thus the plan should address strategies for senior staff and board positions, the steps the organization will take and should also identify designates.

These designates need not be permanent choices for successors. Once the emergency plan is in place, the leadership team can then develop a long-term succession plan that could include strategies for recruiting more appropriate successors. Meanwhile, having an emergency plan builds confidence among board members, employees, volunteers and donors that the organization will be secure in the event of an unforeseen leadership vacuum.

Some of the key questions the emergency plan should address are:

-      What roles are critical to the operation of the organization?

-      What staff members or volunteers could fill these vacant roles, either temporarily or long term?

-      What responsibilities would not be able to be carried out by other staff/volunteers?

-      What needs to happen to address any gaps in responsibilities?

-      How will decisions be made?

Once the emergency plan is in place, the executive and board can proceed to develop a longer term succession plan. Since achieving board and management agreement on this type of future planning could require some months, starting with an emergency plan significantly reduces immediate risks to the organization. This also provides management and the board with an opportunity to begin assessing the capabilities of staff and volunteers as potential successors.

3. Integrate succession planning with strategic planning

Succession planning tends to be most successful when integrated with the strategic planning process. At the same time as the board begins to update the organization’s vision, mission and goals, it makes sense to also consider ways to acquire, develop and retain the people needed to achieve these goals.

Thus if a strategic planning session is on your organization’s short-term horizon, include a succession plan as one of the components. If not, consider appointing a leadership sustainability committee to assume responsibility for the process.

4. Address vital questions   

A succession plan must be able to support organizational sustainability by addressing ways to replace current staff and volunteer leaders and to recruit, develop and retain the leaders of the future. In this context, following are some of the important questions a plan should address.

-      What positions are essential to the continuing sustainability of the organization?

-      What experience and skills does the organization require for each of these positions in order to achieve its mission and goals?

-      What gaps exist between what is currently in place and what is needed?

-      How do we develop and/or source the individuals with these attributes?

-      What type of professional development program do we require in order to prepare staff/volunteers to meet the organization’s future leadership needs?

-      What kind of support should we provide to succession candidates?

Once the succession plan has been approved, it is important to share it with board members, staff members and key stakeholders, enabling them to see how the future of the organization is protected.

Developing a succession plan for your association can ease the stress of replacing senior leaders and ensure the organization is able to carry out its mission regardless of changes in key positions. This type of plan also gives staff and volunteers an opportunity to participate in professional development opportunities and to practise leadership – making them feel valued, challenged and engaged. Most important, it provides a leadership sustainability framework that will support the success of the organization into the distant future.

All of these are important reasons to come “down to earth” and launch a leadership sustainability process for your association.