Lead In!

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In the popular book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, Sandberg urges aspiring leaders to “believe in yourself,” “give it your all,” and never doubt your ability to navigate conflicts between your personal and professional lives. By doing this Sandberg believes you can rise to a leadership position, and once there, make changes that will benefit others who come after you. While it may not be her primary message, she asserts that it is a leader’s obligation to leave the workplace a better place for those who follow.

While spending a day with nonprofit leaders recently, I was reminded of Sandberg’s assertion. We were going through the familiar process of identifying challenges and opportunities for a SWOT analysis, when the discussion settled somewhat uncomfortably on the challenge of succession planning as a widespread challenge that no one wants to talk about, but everyone worries about.

With the candor often shared by executive directors who are relieved to find themselves with peers, bonding over shared war stories, succession planning was described as “the one issue NONE of my board members will look in the eye” and “the biggest, baddest vulnerability we face.” Stories were shared about the death of a founder, leaving an organization in such chaos it almost closed its doors; the challenges of cross-training an organization with only three staff members; and the risks of being the one to raise the issue if you actually plan to stay in your job. It was clear that for this group of leaders, succession planning touched a raw nerve.

But, as they discussed hiding their heads in the sand like ostriches whenever the topic of succession-planning is raised, I could see their guards drop a little, and their thoughtful heads incline just a little more. And then, just like Sandberg urging her readers to stare down the seeming impossible task of finding balance between family and work commitments, these nonprofit leaders gave each other the courage to “lead in.” They stressed how important it was for them when they leave their organizations, whether through a planned departure or not, to know that the nonprofit will survive their departures. And they encouraged each other to face succession planning not as a demon, but as a hallmark of successful leadership.

If the topic of succession planning is a hard one for you to stare down, here are some suggestions shared by these leaders – with a few of my own tossed in:

  • You will be grateful that you’ve put in writing the most important day-to-day procedures in the event a key staff member is out of the office for a long period of time, because someone else will be able to follow the directions to complete those critical tasks. Think of this as “cross-training 101:” What are the tasks that only you do? The next time you complete them, write down the instructions. Then file the instructions where they can be found, such as in the “key documents” folder on your server.
  • When your board urges you to take that vacation you accrued but never used, suggest that you would actually like to take a sabbatical (gasp!) of 1-3 months, a year from now (to give them time to absorb this idea and plan for your departure). Planning for the leadership transition for your sabbatical will actually be a stealth succession planning maneuver. They will probably figure that out, but appreciate your giving them the opportunity for a “do-over” if the plan isn’t perfect. Some of their resistance to succession planning may be wrapped around concerns about losing you, of course, but much of it is also about their feeling of responsibility for the success of the transition, and the corresponding apprehension about whether Plan B could be a disaster, since it can’t possibly be as good as your leadership!
  • Nonchalantly share this article with your nonprofit’s board members, with the caveat that you are “just sharing the article,” not sending any signal other than to remind the board that the topic of succession planning is an awkward one for you, as executive director, to bring up. That should start a discussion!
  • Be bold. Add to the “job description” of the board chair that s/he is responsible for ensuring that the organization has an emergency leadership plan in place at all times.
  • Leave a template leadership succession plan conspicuously on the chairs of all the board members before your next meeting, but don’t include it on the agenda. “Just in case the board would like to put this on the agenda in the future.”
  • Here’s a monograph to share: Building Leaderful Organizations (Annie E. Casey Foundation) and a resource on interim executive directors, The Power in the Middle (Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund)
  • We’ve posted resources on leadership and succession planning (National Council of Nonprofits).
  • Have you thought about an interim executive director as part of your nonprofit’s leadership transition plan? Why and how to hire an interim executive director (North Carolina Center for Nonprofits).
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