When you suddenly learned that a key staff person just got a serious medical diagnosis and was going to be out for an extended period or that their spouse just got offered their dream job out of state, would you be ready? There are a variety of ways to get started with succession planning that prepare the organization. These include emergency back up planning, departure-defined planning, and shifting to a model of shared leadership.
Are you ready for an emergency?
Have you determined who will step in on a temporary basis if your leader is out suddenly? Include both board and staff roles in this planning, not just your CEO role. Do you have someone designated to step in for each of the roles on your leadership team?
Once you have the ‘who’ determined – will they know what to do? What documentation do you have on the projects and processes they manage? If the person has been in the role for a long time, asking them to write everything down rarely works. Have another staff person or volunteer interview that person and then write up what they heard. This gives the person something to react to and likely they will identify gaps to fill in.
Are there ways you can do cross training? Nonprofits are usually pretty lean and rarely have much duplication built in. How can you ensure that your staff knows what colleagues do and what key priorities are coming up? When you do have to ask a staff member to double up and do more than their job, how can you reward them for that extra effort?
Run a fire drill
I recently heard of an executive who decided they were going to run a fire drill to see whether their emergency succession planning was sufficient. She would call a person on her executive team and tell them not to come in, not to check email or respond to inquiries – could the designated staff manage on their own? What did they still need to learn? This real time exercise puts these questions to the test.
Planning for a departure
When your executive or someone on the leadership team know they are planning to leave in a defined amount of time, you can plan ahead. This is typically in the case of retirement and often the time frame is between 1 year to 4 years. Preparing for this process has multiple stages and I discuss each of these in these posts:
Should I stay or should I go?
Even though an executive may be planning to leave – they may be ambivalent about leaving. This may mean that they give mixed messages about their plans. As their feeling shift between excitement for new possibilities and fears about the future their timing may fluctuate. This is often especially true for leaders who are founders or have been in their role for a long time. Their identity may be caught up and entwined with the role. Thus they may have a hard time letting go even though on most days they feel they are ready. A coach can help a leader work through these feelings. This can help keep the organization’s anxiety at a minimum by getting clearer about their intentions.
Planning for succession can feel challenging with all the immediate demands of work. Yet it is just a matter of when a succession will make this more urgent. Emergency planning and documentation is a good place to get started.
The search process
Executive transitions have three essential stages. Tom Adams dubbed these as prepare, pivot and thrive. In my last post, I focused on the first stage -- the things that you need to do to get ready.
When people think of leadership transitions, most often they think about the middle stage – the search for the new executive. And I will focus on that below. The third stage is crucially important to help a new executive succeed.
As part of the preparation, the organization needs to create a transition or search team. One of the first tasks is to create a position profile. When creating the job description, you will need to separate out what is essential to the leadership role and what was part of the last leader’s role simply because of their particular strengths and capacities.
The team will then need to start compiling outreach lists. You will also need to complete compensation research so that you set your salary range at a competitive rate. You may use salary surveys available from your field’s association. There are also consultants who specialize in this type of research who could provide support on this important task.
Many teams, especially larger organizations, choose to hire a search firm. A search firm can broaden your reach in terms of possible candidates. They often do much of the initial screening as well as guide your group through the search process.
Your team will need to do the typical steps of hiring including:
The entire search committee may not be involved in all of these steps. A smaller group could take on some of the initial tasks. Decide at which stage the full board will be brought into the process. Will the search committee offer one final candidate or will the board be part of interviewing the finalists?
Hiring your new leader
The executive director is the board’s only employee. The search committee will bring their final candidate or finalists to the board for its approval. A subgroup of the board should work on the details of the employment agreement. This group would likely benefit from the support and guidance of a lawyer.
While one group is negotiating details with the new leader another group could be working on planning for the arrival and orientation of the new executive director.
Throughout the process, the search committee and board will want to plan for communication with the rest of the organization. While they will not be able to share confidential details of who the candidates are, keeping stakeholders up to date on the group progress is important. This is especially important if you hit snags or parts of the process take longer than anticipated.
I will address the third stage – “thrive” – in the next post in this series.
Getting Ready for Succession
Executive transitions for nonprofits are tricky. It is more than just a straightforward hiring process. The executive transition process has three essential stages. In his seminal work on the topic, Tom Adams describes these three stages as prepare, pivot and thrive. Most people only think about the middle stage – the search for the new executive. Yet the first and the third are really the underpinnings of helping a new executive succeed. They prepare the organization grow and learn through the transition. I am going to explore the first stage in this post – “getting ready”.
A key first step to managing a key leadership transition is to get organized. The board needs to appoint a transition team. Team members should be able to think bigger picture and longer term for the organization. Recruit for a variety of skills including strategic thinking, emotional intelligence and project management. Decide whether the team will consist of only board members or might include some staff leaders as well.
Should we continue as we are?
Don Tebbe, a leading expert in leadership transitions, urges all nonprofit organizations to consider a key question before getting caught up in the details of managing a succession process. Should we continue as we are? Where do we stand in terms of the organization's mission? What has changed in the landscape since we last chose an executive director? Is our organization, with its current programs and services still relevant? Or should we consider closing down? Or is a new organizational form needed? Should the organization consider merging, being acquired or some other strategic restructuring?
This team will need to address both the needs of the departing executive, the needs of the board and the needs of staff. Transitions almost always create some anxiety in the organization. Just pretending that people are not having the emotions they are having about the upcoming changes does not actually make them go away. The team should plan on educating themselves about the types of emotions that people typically experience when going through these kinds of changes. A consultant familiar with leadership transitions can also help normalize this experience.
Another key consideration it to get clear about what role staff will play in the search process if any. It is important to clarify expectations, especially if staff are involved. Are staff involved simply for their comfort? Will they have input on the decision? To what extent? Who ultimately is responsible for making the decision about whom to hire? As the team thinks about how to involve staff, they will also want to talk about their approach to retaining key staff.
Thinking about your communications plan at this stage is also important. Who are the key stakeholders who need to know about the transition? How will you let key funders know? When and how will they be informed?
Consultant help? Interim?
Considering whether it would be helpful to have a consultant guide you through the process is an important conversation. A coach for the departing executive, especially if they have been in the role for a long time can be helpful to help them let go and think about their future. The consultant when hired often plays this role as well. Would the organization be better served with an interim executive instead of jumping immediately to a permanent hire?
During this preparation stage, you should conduct an organizational assessment. This is a piece that is particularly useful to have outside consultant help. What are the organization’s strengths, challenges, direction, and priorities? Often this review will consist of board, staff and stakeholder interviews and surveys.
As part of this review, you may find that the organization needs to be stabilized and key deficiencies identified in assessment process need to be addressed. Do not leave these for the new executive director to fix. When the deficiencies are substantial, an interim director can be particularly helpful.
Strategic leadership session
After the assessment is complete, hold a leadership strategy session. This session should not be designed to tackle a full blown strategic planning process. Topics would include answering questions, such as the following: Is board clear about strategic direction? What does the organization want/need in a new executive director? What are the priorities for the first 12-18 months? What are the issues to be addressed before new executive director is on board? Facilitating this session is another place that is helpful to have consultant support.
A final task in the preparation stage is to create a search plan.
Need help thinking through how to get started with a leadership transition? Reach out for a coaching call.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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