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.
When an organization is going through a leadership transition, one of the questions that is useful for them to consider is whether they would be well served to have an interim before they hire the new executive director.
There are many reasons to consider hiring an interim before launching into the full search process. It is especially useful after a founder or a long-term executive director (generally anything more than 7 years). Hiring an interim creates some space. It allows people to more naturally move through the phases of transition. By creating some separation between the former executive director and the new leader, the organization – staff and board -- can start separating the organization’s identity from the former long-term executive director. An interim director brings fresh eyes and can question how things are done. An interim director does not have the same stake in the outcome as a new executive director and thus can take some risks.
Time to evaluate
An interim helps facilitate conversations about former leader’s strengths and gaps. The organization can then celebrate achievements, identify what parts of the legacy should be preserved, and also start to do things differently. An interim often is able to identify hidden staff talents and potential. The interim director sometimes will also provide a bridge to new executive and even continue as mentor, helping with entry and a successful launch.
Interim directors have the space to “tell the truth” to the board. They will likely conduct an organizational assessment. They can be very helpful with addressing key organizational issues, including cleaning up messes. By taking this action in an interim period, it can better set the new executive director up for success. This allows the new executive director to come in and focus on the future.
Avoiding the accidental interim
Hiring an interim leader helps slow things down. By doing so, the board and staff have the time and space to think strategically and do a thorough search process. Too many organizations rush into a new hire. The new executive director comes in but does not last long because the organization was not fully ready to accept a new person. The quickly departing new executive director thus becomes an ‘accidental’ interim director. You will be better served with being intentional about this and gaining the benefits on an experienced interim.
There are consultants who specialize in taking interim roles. Many have been executive directors in the past. Many have been interim directors multiple times. Because of the benefits this brings, the field has now expanded to include interims for all the C-suite roles. While it may seem expensive in the short term, this option has many long-term benefits.
For the past 20 years, I have been reading about the impending leadership transition in the nonprofit sector as the baby boomers begin to retire. Work in this area has typically focused on a feared leadership gap. Economic realities have delayed this generational shift for years, with many leaders delaying their retirements. Yet it seems like this shift is finally here. At many of the clients I have worked with over the past couple years, the leader is planning to retire in the one-three years.
Not just a generational shift
Yet even without this large generational shift, organizations manage leadership transitions all the time. A June 2015 survey by the Bridgespan Group found that 43% of organizations had to fill a C-Suite position in the previous two years. During a webinar hosted by Nonprofit Quarterly in 2017, the speakers noted that research shows that nine percent of executives turnover every year. Leaders may be leaving for a new role or a new organization, for retirement or because they were asked to leave, as well as other reasons.
Staff are likely talking it
In working with leadership starting to think about moving on, I have struck by a fear they seem to have in common. When we talked, each emphasized – sometimes multiple times - not to mention anything to staff or board members. Though this is on their mind they are very anxious to not share this information with whom they work. I worked at one organization at which the leader was already over 70. Yet mentioning this at a meeting or talking about when they might retire – even when planning a celebratory event several year out – was strictly off the table.
Certainly leaders want to manage this communication carefully, thoughtfully and on their own time line. Yet what they may not realize is that their staff is likely already talking about it. Conversations with each other likely include some speculating about the leader’s plans. So just because a leader has not made any formal announcement, don’t assume staff and board are not wondering about when it will happen and having sidebar conversations about this.
All types of transitions are challenging
This fear about addressing the issue likely comes from a variety of sources. And transitions of all sorts are challenging. Some of the most helpful work in this area that describe the emotions that people experience when going through a transition is by William Bridges. His book Managing Transitions describes three phases – the ending, the middle or neutral zone and new beginnings.
In our action oriented culture most people want to jump from the ending to the new beginning and skip right over the in between and nebulous space of the neutral zone. Yet our lives don’t work like this. Going through a transition means experiencing that in between -- not quite here--not quite there-- space. Anthropologists call this a liminal space – the space in between. It’s the messiness of the emotions involved in the ‘in between’ that most of us would rather skip. The diagram below shows the typical emotions people experience as they move through a transition.
We are emotional beings
In organizations, though we often pretend that people leave their emotional selves at the door and only enter with their expertise, skills and get it done capacity, we know from our own experience that this is not true. This is even more true during leadership transitions. Being willing to acknowledge that is it happening, or will be happening, acknowledge the emotions and then take positive action can make all the difference. In future posts, I will cover a number of aspects of managing leadership transitions including:
Facing a leadership transition and need help thinking about how to get started? Inquire about a complimentary coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.