By Jean Lobell - The talk about succession planning tends to be fraught with some anxiety, some confusion, and some misconceptions. My experience is that this can be avoided or at least minimized, if we got clear about three things:
- More often than not, when we talk about succession planning, we think about ED replacement. Understandably so. As the primary locus of leadership, Boards and outgoing EDs are most concerned about who will take the organization forward and on to the next level of growth. But succession planning is not just about the ED. It’s about who will replace individuals in the top key positions of the organization. For smaller organizations, this might be only one or two positions.
- The need for a documented succession plan has proponents as well as critics. I happen to agree that a documented succession plan is important to have, but not because the plan should be on paper, but because it is the result of the thoughtful discussions and the strategic thinking that the Board and Staff leadership have had about the talent pipeline for the organization. It’s the process behind the documented succession plan that matters.
- The readiness of nonprofit Board and Staff leadership to take on this responsibility is a serious matter for consideration. The 2011 Daring to Lead study highlighted the “under-preparedness” of many Boards to select and support new leaders. This was underscored by another finding in the same study that about 68% of EDs (41% in NY) found their performance evaluation either of little use or not useful at all. Performance evaluations and succession planning are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, ineffective performance evaluation practices would have adverse impact on successful succession planning.
Succession Planning Is Not Just About the ED
In our leadership and human resources consulting work at CRE, we get requests from Boards and EDs for help with succession planning efforts. More often than not, the request is really around ED transition and/or executive search. And sometimes it is about developing an emergency leadership transition plan, not to be confused with a succession plan. The former is about ensuring that should the ED not be able to fulfill the leadership role due to illness or death, that an interim person will be ready at the wings to step up to the ED role. It is also also about ensuring that another person will be ready to take on the interim ED’s former position, etc.
All of the above are indeed key components of succession planning. However, true succession planning is a process that involves the following:
- An annual review of the competency requirements for key positions,
- Identification of potential replacements from within the organization (the jargon is the rather impersonal term “replacement inventory”),
- Assessment of those potential replacements against the position’s competency requirements,
- The needed staff development that will be provided to get the potential replacement ready for the key position, and
- Determination of when each potential replacement might be ready to step up to a key position.
- Clear and updated job specs for key positions,
- Effective hiring processes,
- High quality performance evaluations,
- Individual staff development plans, and
- A successful retention strategy.
- Fill key positions without delay,
- Fill key positions primarily (though not exclusively) from the within the organization,
- Fill key positions with candidates who prove to be successful, and
- Retain talent in key positions.
Click here for more information about the New York City respondents and interesting facts about their Daring to Lead responses.
Links to previous posts in the Daring to Lead series:
One Size Does Not Fit All Boards
A Bone To Pick About Government Contracting
Daring To Lead: A National Study on Executive Leadership
Read the Daring to Lead main report and Brief 1: Leading Through a Recession.