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Succession Planning and the CEO-Board Disconnect: New Insight from GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group

According to a February 2013 survey on nonprofit succession planning and related practices conducted by The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, only a third of Atlanta nonprofits have a written succession plan in place to ensure a smooth transition to a new chief executive, whether through a planned or emergency departure. And only half of organizations surveyed felt that they have the knowledge to create a plan. Yet, this detailed roadmap to anticipating future leadership gaps and filling them effectively is critical—and there is widespread agreement on its value, with grantmakers increasingly asking if a succession plan is in place.

Why don’t organizations have a succession planning process in place?25%: No knowledge of how to do an emergency succession plan
24%: Succession planning has never been talked about as a
necessary investment
19%: Board does not feel succession planning is a high priority
15%: Organizations cannot afford (time or cost) to plan for succession
7%: Board is resistant to seriously planning for succession
10%: Other

The survey revealed that many nonprofits lack an understanding of succession planning as an essential building block of the strategic plan.

This may be due in part to respondents’ belief that succession planning begins only when an executive plans to retire or take another position. In fact, it encompasses a continuous process meant to ensure development of needed talent for meeting strategic plan goals, in addition to ensuring a smooth and effective leadership transition.

For further insight into succession planning practices, the Georgia Center for Nonprofit’s Consulting Group and The Community Foundation conducted a follow-up focus group moderated by GCN Senior Consultants Cindy Cheatham and Mary Bear Hughes. 

Bringing together 11 recently-hired nonprofit chief executives (one to three years into their current tenure), the focus group provided first-hand testimony on the challenges facing a new leader, strategies for navigating a new role successfully, and fresh insight into the need for leadership transition literacy. 

“Never underestimate the importance of culture fit between a new leader and the organization..."

All focus group participants identified challenges related to being the new leader. Those without a succession plan building internal talent and driving the search process reported more difficult challenges: some entered unknowingly in an emergency rescue role, while others were operating from very limited knowledge of the position and the state of the organization. 

Most of these focus group participants felt strongly that lack of a succession plan resulted in a disconnect between board and staff understanding of their organizations. They cited this disconnect as the most significant challenge to their transition. The disconnect could be summarized as three main issues:

1. The Importance of Organizational Culture

Boards that have not participated in a succession planning process that exposes them to building staff leadership may not grasp the internal culture and the importance of “fit” when selecting a leader. Boards may apply appropriate emphasis to known business needs when defining the position, without equal consideration of underlying culture, even if it needs a change agent. Said one focus group participant, “Never underestimate the importance of culture fit between a new leader and the organization – both the board and staff.”

2. Perceived v. Actual State of the Organization

Some boards have not been exposed to the practical details of their organization or the depth of the challenges it faces. Board members may believe they are accurately portraying the state of the organization. Without the benefit of strategic or emergency succession planning, however, there may be significant disparities between what the board believes the position entails, and what the position actually requires. Understanding begins with communication between staff and board. A focus group participant said, “The board was very transparent, which was important for me. Had I learned about some of these [issues] after I arrived, I don’t think I would be here still. I knew what I was signing up for.”

3. The Importance of a Strong Relationship with the Chief Executive

Focus group participants from organizations with and without succession plans emphasized the importance of developing a strong relationship between the entire board and the new chief executive. Over-reliance, they indicated, on the chair or a small group of board members for all communications resulted in lack of broad understanding of newly identified issues. It also slowed the development of credibility with the entire board and the ability to draw on members for support. They acknowledged that new executives must maintain full disclosure with their boards and cannot fear coming across as critical or too strong.

We learned from results of the focus group participants that not only is there a lack of succession planning as a process, but also that there is a lack of understanding of what is required post-hire to ensure the new chief executive’s ongoing success.

GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group provides succession planning, transition management, and executive search services to help overcome these challenges. We provide comprehensive consulting while also bringing customized training and workshops to nonprofits and the community.

Take some time to look at your organization and its leadership vulnerabilities now, and it’s sure to pay off before long. Better yet, become a GCN member and join us at our Nonprofit University Board Leadership Clinic on June 19.

Victoria Sutton is Consulting Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.
Cindy Cheatham is Vice President, GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group.

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