Let’s Talk About Succession Planning: Getting the Conversation Started

Starting the Conversation about Succession Planning

All nonprofits need a strong, engaged board with the skills, talents, knowledge, and expertise to make key decisions and build organizational capacity for producing results. Every organization is different, and each board has a unique culture. However, there are common qualities of a healthy, engaged board that has the capacity to govern effectively and the self-awareness to continue to grow and evolve with the organization. Assessment can help boards examine these qualities and identify where they are doing well, where they could be stronger, and how they should prioritize board development efforts.

Increasingly, nonprofits are beginning to recognize the importance of succession planning. But many still view it in terms of “what do we do when the executive director leaves.” This is a common mistake that sells short succession planning by confusing it with leadership transition. Differentiating the two is an important first step.

Leadership transition is the episodic process of supporting recruitment, selection, and hiring to fill the executive and other key leadership positions.

Succession planning is the ongoing process of defining the organizational roles and capacities needed for success and of identifying and developing personnel to prepare them to fill those roles as needed.

Leadership transition focuses on a specific leadership position and the time-limited process to effectively fill it. Its focus is on the practical.

Succession planning is a process that anticipates both planned and unplanned change. Its focus is on the possible.

Succession Planning is Strategic

Succession planning is both informed by the organization’s current situation and driven by its desired future state. Therefore, it is an inherently strategic activity. Consider the types of questions that should be asked as part of a succession planning effort:

  • What are the significant challenges facing the organization now?
  • What is the organization’s future direction, and what skills, competencies, and capacities will it need to succeed?
  • What kind of support do emerging leaders get in this organization?
  • How do we build talent and leadership from within?

Many of these are the same questions an organization would address in a strategy development process. For this reason, it can be useful to purposefully link succession planning conversations to strategic planning. Aligning the right people with the right skills behind an organization’s key initiatives and programs is critical to success. Succession planning, particularly when combined with a larger strategy process, creates a context for understanding and addressing these needs, and for building out the right leadership for today and tomorrow.

The hard part is getting the conversation started.

It’s All About Conversations

Conversations about succession planning tend to challenge the status quo and push individuals out of their comfort zones. These conversations require intention, thoughtfulness, and patience. Below are some tips to help them go smoothly for you and your organization.

  • Have conversations about succession planning before you need to. No organization can marshal its best thinking in the middle of a leadership crisis. This means you need to take the time now, which may require temporarily setting aside demands that seem more pressing. It is important to remember that addressing the succession needs of your organization is no less important.
  • Set the context. When engaging with staff and board around these issues, be ready to explain “what this is about and why we are doing it.” It is not about the short-term, but the longer-term interests of the organization, its mission, and its clients. Taking the time to set this context respects the participants and provides more depth of meaning to the ensuing conversation.
  • Know where you want the conversation to go, but be open to new information. When you open up these conversations, you should come in with some idea of what the organization needs, what you want others to understand, and what you want to ask of them. But this is a dialogue, not a monologue. Remember that there is always more than one possible outcome, and remain open.
  • Pay attention to your own intentions and emotions. Be cognizant of the issues, thoughts, and emotions that surface for you during these conversations. Once you give voice to the thinking you have around succession issues, it may become more real to you. Be prepared.
  • Listen and be receptive to the reactions of others. Like you, others are going to be discovering their own intentions and emotions during these conversations. Your ability to engage in deep, thoughtful listening is of critical importance.
  • Try to “add light and not heat.” Conversations that ask individuals to think about change and the possibilities that change can bring may become intense. Try to add insight, reflection, and acknowledgement during the process. Allow space for emotions, but do not let them run away with the entire process.
  • Close every conversation with next steps. Where do you go from here? What are you asking of others? Who else is impacted by this conversation and when will they enter the dialogue? Is there a larger communications plan that needs to be developed? Being clear about what happens next will help maintain momentum – as well as the trust of those participating in the process.

In Closing

The point of succession planning is not just to avoid being caught unprepared, but to be thoughtful and proactive about the future. Succession planning surfaces important questions about how nonprofits will evolve to meet new and changing realities, and what kind of leadership they will need to succeed.

The opportunity is to think not merely about how to “replace” departing leaders, but about how the definition of nonprofit leadership itself might be updated, revised, or even transformed.

These conversations are essential, not only for navigating the way forward through changes in your organization’s leadership, but for taking a fresh look at leadership itself, expanding its definition, and developing a stronger sector as a whole.