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Amy Wishnick

About Amy

Leadership Succession Planning: What’s on the Other Side?

Consulting with nonprofits on strategic planning and organizational development, I’ve seen how succession planning has emerged as a very important task for the board and executive leadership. Succession planning involves developing talent within an organization to assume higher levels of responsibility, as well as identifying a plan for seamless continuity when the executive director/CEO leaves.

When an organization has a succession plan in place, stakeholders tend to feel confident that come what may, they will be prepared. In reality, however, when nonprofit board members are faced with an executive leadership transition, they cross a threshold into uncharted territory.

Succession Planning Does Not (Completely) Prepare You for Executive Transition

In my experience, succession planning takes an organization to this threshold. On one side, the organization stands with stable leadership and a plan. This plan is a clear roadmap for meeting professional development needs and training staff members so they can grow in their jobs and be in line to take on roles that offer increased responsibility and accountability. Indeed, the succession plan likely also includes direction for appointing an interim executive director or CEO to lead the organization in an emergency or otherwise.

On the other side of the threshold is executive leadership transition, which is a complex process. It encompasses everything related to finding a new leader for the organization —clarifying, searching, onboarding, and supporting—as well as managing expectations and communication with all stakeholders, including staff, funders, donors, organizational partners, clients, and the community.

Executive leadership transition is a journey. It starts with learning from the past and discerning what it will take to succeed in the future. It is akin to moving from one neighborhood to another. You must determine what characteristics of your old neighborhood you still want/need and what new attributes are necessary or “nice to have.” Then you need to identify potential neighborhoods that will provide the essential characteristics. Finally, after you have moved, you need to learn to navigate in the new neighborhood, adjust to your new supermarket, find your new dry cleaners, and so on. You also need to notify the post office of your change of address, let your friends and family know the new address, etc.

Transition takes time. According to the literature, a leadership transition is not complete until the new leader has been on the job for a year and has gone through a full organizational cycle. For this reason, adaptive organizations and those paying attention to process and communication may be more successful with their leadership transitions, as will boards of directors able to live with ambiguity.

The Best Laid Plans

For one nonprofit I know, its succession plan focused on how to handle the situation should the executive director position become vacant. The plan called for a member of the management team to fill the role until the board of directors hired a new executive director. The plan permitted a seamless leadership shift when the executive director left. The staff was comfortable as was the board—the organization would function without missing a beat.

The inevitable happened: The executive director announced plans for departure. At first glance, the plan seemed sufficient. But when we looked a bit more closely, we found an organization that was about to launch a search with a job description that hadn’t been updated in four years. The board had no process in place for conducting a search. Furthermore, even though the position had not been advertised, resumes were already coming in!

Continuity is Key, But There Are Gaps

Managing a transition begins with ensuring that the organization continues to function at a high level whether or not the departing executive director/CEO is there. This is where a succession plan comes into play. Who fills in on an interim basis? Is there existing staff to step up? Is there a need to hire an interim? Is there a provision for the board to step in to handle management related issues for a prescribed period?

What the succession plan doesn’t necessarily cover is how to figure out what type of leader the organization needs and then identifying, recruiting, and hiring a new executive. The search for the next executive leader is the pivotal activity. It is possibly the most important action a board takes, and certainly may be the distinguishing feature of the tenure of a particular set of directors.

There is considerable room for improvement in both succession planning and executive transition. According to Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership (A Joint Project of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation): “Despite 15 years of attention to the issue, a number of key practices associated with effective executive transition are not widespread. Executives and boards are still reluctant to talk proactively about succession and just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan. Even more problematic is the extent to which many boards are unfamiliar with the dimensions of their executives’ roles and responsibilities. Just 33% of executives were very confident that their boards will hire the right successor when they leave.”

Essential Questions

Your board should ask and answer numerous questions as it determines the organization’s leadership needs to ensure ongoing stability and sustainability. Some of the basic ones are:

  • What kind of leader do you need to guide the organization to the next level?
  • How do you figure out what the real job of the executive director/CEO really is on a day-to-day basis?
  • Who are the stakeholders you need to communicate with and what is the right way to do so?
  • What is the appropriate way to involve the staff members? How do you allay their concerns during this time of uncertainty for them?

Essential Actions

No matter what process the board creates to manage the transition and hire a new executive, it must do the following:

  • Engage the board and staff appropriately, setting clear boundaries, roles, and expectations. Which board members will comprise the search committee that will manage the hiring process? How will they keep staff and the rest of the board, not part of the search committee, up to date on search activities? At what intervals?
  • Be forthright with external stakeholders—clients, community, partner organizations, donors, funders, and others. What do they need to know in order to continue to have confidence in your organization?
  • Gain understanding of the near- and long-term challenges and opportunities facing the organization. What are the priorities? What will demand a new executive’s attention in the first three months through the first three years?
  • Create a current job description that paints a detailed picture of the ideal candidate. Are there qualities and traits that the departing/departed executive possessed that bear replication? What new qualities, behaviors, skills, experiences are necessary for the next leader to be successful? What special attributes does someone need to master the challenges and make the most of the opportunities?
  • Determine what the market rate salary is and/or what package you can offer. Are you offering a competitive salary and benefits package commensurate with the level of candidate you seek, the complexity of your organization, and the budget size? Do you need to identify ways to boost a lesser package?
  • Understand why the position is attractive (or not) in the marketplace. What does your organization have to offer a prospective leader? Why would someone want to work with you and your board? With the staff? What does a candidate have to gain? What are the upsides and potential? What are the downsides?
  • Articulate a set of expectations for the new executive’s first 90 and 180 days. What will the new executive be evaluated on in the first few months?
  • Have a set of key criteria for vetting candidates and interview questions to elicit this information. What are the non-negotiables? What characteristics, skills, knowledge, experience must a candidate have to move forward in the hiring process? What are the “pluses” that would distinguish a highly qualified candidate from a qualified one?
  • Ensure that everyone on your board embraces and agrees on the key criteria. Is there any dissention within the board that might thwart a successful conclusion to the hiring process?

This is not an exhaustive list! There are as many questions as you can and want to address. They depend on your organization’s culture and values, the circumstances around which the position became available, and more. These questions, however, do offer a framework to build on. It is my hope that any organization with an impending leadership transition will now approach the threshold with a better sense of what lies on the other side.


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