Here today. Gone tomorrow. People come and go. It is a stark reality that nothing lasts forever. Deep down we all know this, but in the non-profit sector it tends to be avoided. The departure of someone who holds a key position within an organization can be rough. Whether someone has tendered their resignation or has left abruptly, there is a big gap to be filled. Those left behind often look to one another wondering where to start or what to do.
Long-term sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, but it is the leadership’s duty to avoid organizational crisis. The board ultimately hires the Executive Director and it is the board’s responsibility to replenish itself. Plotting a strategy to fill key positions such as the Executive Director or Board Chairperson long before they exit demonstrates risk management, strategic planning, and generative thinking.
A succession plan is a pre-meditated tool to help smooth the transition between departure and onboarding. Most organizations have limited experience with formal succession planning, but it can be a powerful advantage. It can considerably improve the odds that your organization will survive change. Rather than view it as a dreadful project, try framing it as an exciting opportunity to prepare for the future.
A good succession plan will help to safeguard an organization dealing with unexpected events such as illness, accident, or death. Start planning now if the Executive Director intends to retire in the next few years, or if the Board Chairperson’s term is imminent.
A succession plan is a living document. The details might change, but the main information must be written down. Time and again, when someone in a key position leaves the information in their head goes with them. What a loss! A written succession plan ensures that the knowledge transfer happens whether the departure is planned or not. The succession plan needs to be documented, communicated, and readily available for reference.
If you are wondering where to start, MacLean (2013) offers seven steps to get the ball rolling:
- Open the dialogue between the board of directors and the Executive Director
- Talk about the future
- Discuss people’s time commitments with the organization
- Make succession planning a part of your strategic plan
- Set it as a goal
- Develop a list of key positions
- Establish a timeline
- Support the notion of a succession plan, believe in its value, and champion it
- Determine if an organizational review will be part of the succession planning process (it will help to identify key skills and competencies needed to lead the organization)
- Review vision, mission, structure, services, and community relationships
- Develop a committee
- How many people are needed to do the work
- How will the work be divided up
- How will recruiting be done
- How will interested candidates be retained
- Develop an action plan
- Ensure that key information about the organization is documented, current, and accessible
- Ensure that the succession plan aligns with organizational bylaws and policies
- Assess the internal talent pool (staff and volunteers) to determine if someone could fill the vacancy temporarily or permanently
- Test the succession plan
- When the Executive Director or Board Chairperson is away have a board member follow the succession plan
- Review and update the succession plan annually
- Succession planning is ongoing not an event
- Make any necessary additions or revisions
- Maintain the dialogue between the board of directors and the Executive Director
Assembling key information about the organization is a big chunk of what to do before a key position is vacated. Here are some examples of documentation that should always be current and available:
- Board of directors
- List of directors, committees, terms of reference, meeting schedule, board manual, minutes
- Names, titles, job descriptions, personnel policies, reporting relationships, staff meetings
- Organizational details
- Policies, organizational chart, bylaws, strategic plan, business plan, filing system, manuals, key suppliers, contracts, official documents, leases
- Operational details
- Services, programs, projects, special events, advocacy
- Financial details
- Budget, signing authorities, financial reporting to the board, audit, banking
This all seems very time consuming, and you might be thinking that there is no time to deal with this! Yet, the time that you spend now is likely to save more time later. A succession plan enables continuity and helps to minimize negative impact. Part of the reason a written succession plan tends to be avoided is that we get caught up in the day-to-day operations, and we ignore it until it becomes worrisome. Still, research indicates that the average tenure for an Executive Director in Canada is approximately six years (Board Index, 2006). Typically, a Board Chairperson’s term is three years. Nothing lasts forever, so make succession planning a priority for your organization today.
- MacLean, Paula J. (2013). Following the Leader. Edmonton, AB: Silver Creek Press, pp. 25-28
- Spencer Stuart. (2006). Spencer Stuart Board Index: The Changing Profile of Directors. Spencer Stuart Publications, p. 10