How to Find Success in Succession Planning

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There are plenty of excellent articles and even research papers on succession planning designed to help nonprofits and boards of directors, but despite the availability of rich resources, transitions of leadership continue to be among the most challenging events in the lifecycle of a charitable nonprofit. The elusiveness of smooth and successful transitions is an entrenched problem that requires every nonprofit leader – board and staff - to seize responsibility for transitions as if on a personal quest. Succession planning and leadership transitions are hard – and for some – scary, so we avoid the issue. Nevertheless, let’s think about how to turn leadership transitions into something that boards of directors can more realistically control, and are eager to address. Applying the power of positive thinking, what if we approached each leadership transition as a “powerful moment in a nonprofit’s life that can be used to advance mission capacity…”? These wise words and many other useful insights are shared in The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices, authored by Tom Adams (formerly President of TransitionGuides, now a director at Raffa, Inc.), which is a free and insightful resource that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. We've used the paper as a springboard for exploring how to find “success” in succession planning. 

What if we flipped the normal leadership transition scenario on its head:

  • Instead of waiting for the “right” candidate to come to us, why not proactively seek out and invite applicants to apply? Let’s not place the blame on the “pipeline” because there are now platforms for job seekers, such as Jopwell, designed to advance the careers of diverse populations. 
  • Instead of waiting for the new executive director to “right the boat,” why not use the transition process as the opportunity to get the boat in tip-top shape before the new hire arrives, so s/he doesn’t have to spend precious onboarding time putting in place practices or policies that should have been there in the first place? Putting the ship in order is often an expectation for interim executive directors
  • We’ve seen volunteer search committees approach their task with the energy of a SWAT team, and when the search is completed, find that their energy is drained. Instead of being greeted by a fizzled-out board, what if the new executive director is greeted by a re-inspired board, ready to engage in a positive and collaborative relationship, so that together the board and new CEO can collectively set a new leadership agenda?

These suggestions are inspired by the approach of a growing number of organizational development practitioners who encourage nonprofits to see leadership transitions not just as “searches” for a new leader, but as part of an intentional, ongoing process of making the nonprofit more sustainable. The idea is to think about “succession planning” as more than succession, and transitions not as temporary states, but as an ongoing reality. With that shift in thinking, perhaps each board of directors will understand that transitions happen – whether unexpected or planned – and it’s each board member’s role to help the nonprofit be constantly prepared for changes in leadership, while leveraging transitions into opportunities to build stronger organizations. We encourage you to read the excellent report, The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices, for many more ideas.

Meanwhile, here are 5 practices that will help your nonprofit find success in succession planning:

  1. Consider the benefits of an interim executive director.
  2. If your nonprofit doesn’t already have an emergency succession plan, put a priority on the board’s adoption of one . Don’t wait until it’s too late!
  3. Prioritize developing internal leaders: a strong “bench” is good for your organization, and good for the charitable nonprofit community. Think intentionally about how to support multigenerational leadership.
  4. Keep your focus on sustainability, not just getting through the next grant cycle.
  5. Expand your vision of who the next leader of your organization will be. The low percentage of nonprofit leaders of color is a problem for our entire sector. Use leadership transitions as opportunities to “align values of equity and inclusion with the nonprofit’s practices, staying relevant in a changing world” as described in, Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap.

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