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Succession Planning

How many key roles do you employ on your leadership team? What happens when one of your primary players leaves? Does your organization have a succession plan to absorb the change and move forward?

Succession planning is one of the most critical goals in every organization’s strategic plan; however, most often it’s left out and considered a problem for the future. It’s the Board job to fulfill its fiduciary duties which includes assigning leadership for future advancements and expectations. Equally important is giving the executive an opportunity to plan for their own transition.

Succession planning does not just apply to retirement – aged executives who have a scheduled date to depart. Any organization can experience the abrupt loss of someone in a key position, no matter what the age or circumstance. Without planning for that potential gap now, the organization’s momentum could easily stall, leading to a delay in implementing plans and meeting goals. An overall domino effect may occur causing staff morale problems and concerns from board members, as well as affecting how supporters view the organization.

Raising the subject of success planning can be difficult for an executive or board member, given the range of “what if” scenarios. Also, if the executive brings it up, alarms may go off around a potential departure. On the other hand, if the board raises the subject, it may cause the executive to feel insecure in their position. The best approach is to have an open and honest discussion, without any personal entanglements, between the board and the executive. In the end, it’s in everyone’s best interest to have a succession plan in place.

Succession Plan Checklist

1. Strategic Plan: Develop and execute a 3-5 year strategic plan, because, without one, the organization is a rudderless ship without a compass or map. Having the board and staff leadership work together to identify the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats can be a re-energizing lesson. Assessing the external and internal environments enable the organization to effectively respond to short and long term challenges and seize opportunities.

2. Leadership Team: The executive has formed a team of key staff who are engaged in the decision making and can lead the organization in their absence.

a. Key staff has the authority to make and implement decisions within their position descriptions

b. Key staff has the appropriate skills and performs well as a team

3. Board: The board is the governing body of the organization and has delegated authority to the executive to execute the strategic plan and carry out the organization’s policies.

a. Annually evaluates the executive leadership

b. Annually performs a self-assessment and, based on the findings, determines whether it is performing its fiduciary duties effectively and efficiently

c. Another staff person shares important external relationships (members, policy makers, community leaders, etc) along with the executive

4. Financial position: Organization’s financial data and records are current and accurate.

a. The organization has cash reserves and assets valued at three months or more of operating capital

b. Operational manuals exist for all key administrative systems

c. Documentation of key activities and functions exists, and staff has been identified to handle duties in the event of an emergency

Departure-based Successions

1. Set a departure date. When possible give the organization sufficient time to make the transition. Review the list above and determine what is needed to ensure the most successful transition.

2. Create a succession planning committee that includes board members and key staff, depending on the circumstances and the culture of the organization. Clearly define roles and expectations to ensure everyone is working towards the same goals.

3. Prepare a communication plan to notify key stakeholders such as staff, board members, members, policy makers, colleagues, friends, etc.

4. Identify any areas of vulnerability and create strategies to deal with these issues.

5. Have a clear strategic direction

6. Solidify the leadership team

7. Build the board’s leadership abilities

8. Put the organization’s finances in order

9. Develop a recruitment strategy

For Executives: When to Leave?

Ask yourself the following questions: Based on anticipated organization and environmental changes, do I have the skills necessary to lead and manage these changes efficiently and effectively? Are there things the organization needs to do that I have no interest or energy in doing? How excited am I when I think about the work I do? Am I building the leadership skills of my direct reports?

It’s never easy to make the decision to leave a position; however, in the best interests of yourself and the organization you represent, it’s often necessary. When an executive reaches the conclusion that it’s best to part ways, having a succession plan in place makes a transition that much smoother and more successful.

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