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Fear, understanding, and time: The three obstacles to succession planning

In a 2011 study, GCN partner CompassPoint Nonprofit Services found that just 17% of participating organizations had a written succession plan—that is, a detailed roadmap for anticipating future leadership gaps and filling them effectively—despite widespread agreement on in its value as a fundamental part of any strategic plan (especially among grantmakers looking for evidence of organization sustainability).

So what’s stopping them? Lack of time? Lack of understanding? Fear? Yes, yes and yes. But it only takes a little knowledge to overcome all three of those obstacles.

Let’s tackle the fears first, by exposing
Four Myths of Succession Planning:

 
Myth #1: Succession planning isn’t needed until someone is ready to retire, so starting now will tell people that one of our key leaders is leaving.

The reality: It can take years to develop a solid platform for stable leadership transition. Starting the process now is a sign of responsibility, not a sign of imminent change.

Starting the process now is a sign of responsibility, not a sign of imminent change.

Myth #2: Succession planning is just for the CEO.

The reality: A succession plan spells out the future leadership needs for an entire organization, from board leadership to key staff positions, that considers future growth and the need to groom or acquire talent for it.

Myth #3: Succession planning is only for large organizations that can afford the bench-strength.

The reality: Succession planning does not mean grooming an understudy for every staff leader. Rather, it’s a deliberate process to develop existing leaders in anticipation of organizational growth. (The exception is the board, which should identify specific successors for key positions.)

Myth #4: If I invest the resources to develop someone in my organization, they may just leave for a better-paying job elsewhere.

The reality: When you invest in an employee by providing development opportunities and a clear roadmap for his or her future, you get a far more committed employee than one who is unsure about what’s coming.

Next, let’s expand your understanding by outlining the
Three Types of Succession Planning:

 
Strategic Succession Planning: A long-term plan for external hires and current staff at every level. This is planning for company growth, continuity, and continuous improvement to meet future needs (ideally internally). It is the most important form of succession planning, and the most frequently overlooked.

Emergency Succession Planning: A detailed script for interim leadership in the event of a short-term emergency or unanticipated departure, accounting for everything from the highest leadership decisions to the most practical concerns, including (but not limited to) the location of key documents, re-routing procedures for critical activities, and identifying the needs of short-term replacements for key positions.

Leadership Transition Planning: Includes phases for stabilizing or strengthening the organization, conducting the search, and planning intentional steps for a smooth transition. Ideally, leadership transition planning begins one to two years before a departure, but even sudden departures will benefit from this process.

All three types are essential to your organization’s future, and all require a strong collaborative relationship between board and the CEO, clearly stated leadership development expectations, and an atmosphere of candor, respect and trust—not to mention plenty of reflection on the future of your organization.

This is a commitment to a time-consuming process.

To ease you into it, here are Two Ways to Get Started Today:

 
Prepare for the Unexpected:

If you start with emergency succession planning, you score two advantages: getting into the hands-on work of succession planning immediately, and engaging your board directly in the process. The critical steps:

Cross-train staff to ensure continuous operations in the case of a departmental gap.

  • Work with your board to decide how interim leadership for a short-term or permanent vacancy will be selected. Where interim executive leadership may be needed, adopt a policy to engage an outside party who will not be a candidate for the position.
  • Groom senior management to handle temporary increase in responsibility.
  • Ensure that policies, procedures, processes and instructions are fully documented and gathered in one place, and that passwords, banking and contract details are secure and known by more than one person.
  • Cross-train staff to ensure continuous operations in the case of a departmental gap.
  • Involve board members with as many high-level external contacts (major donors, business partners, legislative allies, etc.) as possible to ensure relationships are spread throughout the institution.

Take the First Step in succession Planning Strategy:

Look at your strategic plan to see if it covers the human resources and specific capabilities you’ll need to grow. Then, begin filling in the blanks by:

Ensure senior staff members create development plans with members of their own department.

  • Being specific: Detail not just numbers of people needed, but also the skills those individuals will need to have. 
  • Being realistic about which future initiatives require leadership not currently on staff, and which can be led by current talent developed for new roles.
  • Creating a talent gap analysis, determining strengths to be developed and areas of needed training, mentoring and/or experience.
  • Working with senior staff to tie professional development plans to the organization’s future needs, making sure staff members have the ability and motivation to carry through.
  • Ensuring senior staff members create development plans with members of their own department, and making those plans part of the annual review process.

Mary Bear-Hughes is a Senior Consultant at GCN and former ED of the Atlanta Ballet, and has 20 years of experience consulting for nonprofits like Georgians for Passenger Rail, Cobb Schools Foundation, and the Greater Women’s Business Council.

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