Keeping the Success in Succession Planning

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 17th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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While preparing to do some capacity building work with a client, I was enthusiastically told about the capacity building workshops that had already been provided to the organization’s members.

The key presenter of these prior workshops was a renowned expert within this organization’s mission specialty. One of his messages was that everyone on the board must find their own replacements before they can leave.  That’s just so wrong as a practice and sends some of the worst messages possible about board functioning and performance.  But what is so often the case, when someone who is presented as a person of authority says something frequently enough or loud enough, it sounds like “the truth.” This is how bad practices get institutionalized as good.

Sometimes someone has to dare to say the Emperor has no clothes. I respect the fact that there are many things on which there are differing viewpoints and different ways of achieving the same end goal. That, however, does not mean that everything is up for grabs or open for debate. There are some “rights” and “wrongs” in our sector, and we ignore them at our own peril, and deserve the consequences.

Recently, I heard an executive director dismiss succession planning as unnecessary because an executive director should groom his/her own clone to succeed him/her. Yet, again, the vision of my Swiss aunt comes to mind: she loved to raise her right index finger in the air and say with a much-used voice of authority, “Wrong!”

We don’t find our own replacement as a board member and we don’t find our own replacement as executive director. That simply is not how it is done. Executive directors are not private business owners; they don’t get to do their own thing. They have a boss – the board. It is the board’s job to hire its key employee—the executive director. It should do so after a very careful and intentional process. It is not a careful and intentional process to turn to the outgoing executive director and say, “Tell us who to hire.”

But let’s go back to the first part of this cockeyed view: succession planning is unnecessary. Perhaps the chief value of succession planning is it preserves progress and ensures that an organization doesn’t flounder and misstep when an executive director leaves.

Or, perhaps the chief value of succession planning is that it lets the board do a lot of the heavy lifting when not in crisis. And face it, whether an executive director leaves as part of a mutually agreed to plan or in a sudden departure, desired by all or not, a nonprofit board is thrown into crisis because it means it has no choice but to step up. The magnitude of the crisis at the time of departure is mitigated by the amount of time a board has had to get accustomed to the idea and the amount of preparation it has already done. Hence, the succession plan.

In succession planning, thinking is done with the luxury of ”knowing” the work is for some point in the future and is neither now nor even imminent. So, the tough questions can be answered thoughtfully and carefully, as opposed to what happens when in crunch mode and under pressure.

The toughest question is determining what will be needed in the next executive director going forward (as opposed to simply replacing what is leaving)? Additional juicy questions: does the person have to come from within the mission, do we want push to promote from within or seek the best candidate regardless of where s/he comes from, what other senior management changes might need to be made, how much will we need to pay to get what we need (and not how much can we get with for what we can pay), and the list goes on?

The easier questions can also be addressed, such as how wide a net do we want to cast (local, regional, national), will we pay moving expenses, where will we advertise? Also addressed should be the strategy for how the transitions—executive director leaving, executive director left, new executive director needs to be integrated and acculturated—will be handled. This way, when the time comes, the plan is pulled out, the footprints are followed and, in not time, you are in search mode—not panic mode.

As to the second part of this notion that an executive director grooms his/her replacement clone, I can but marvel at the many flaws included in this one assumption. First, the obvious: what happens when the executive director is fired because of any number of reasons? Why would anyone turn to him and ask for his candidate to replace him? What happens when the board has been less than satisfied with the executive but not enough (or the board is not strong enough) to fire the person? Why ask her for her recommendation? And second, even if the outgoing executive director is both wonderful at her/his job and much beloved and respected, why should the board shirk its responsibility of hiring its most pivotal employee?

One of the chief responsibilities of a board is to hire, supervise and, when necessary, fire the executive director. This body of, theoretically, objective and diverse thinkers who have the best interests of the mission at heart bring a richness and perspective to this process and decision-making that no one individual could ever hope to bring. This is a time when finally boards actually stop admitting just to the wondrousness of the outgoing executive director and acknowledge that things weren’t perfect, this or that could have been done differently and better, had stronger outcomes, pulled in more clients/volunteers/donors, etc.; and this is what starts them thinking critically about what is really needed going forward. (And, to be honest, the person who thinks it is his/her job to find his/her clone, is the executive director who is also willing to admit to those things that weren’t perfect.) The synergy of the collective thinking and, eventually, decision making in this process is what makes it so much richer and more robust than what any one person could do on her/his own. Isn’t that what we should all want in the selection of our paid organizational leader?

>On February 18, Laura Otten will present a program on the right way to do succession planning.


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