Five Things Chief Executives Need to Know About Succession Planning

In our last column, Six Things Boards Need to Know About Succession Planning, we noted that the two most feared words in any nonprofit boardroom are “search committee.”

The fear among many chief executives is the perception that embarking on succession planning will hint at a possible departure. This potential perception could spiral into a series of issues including rumors and assumptions, diminished relevancy as a leader, a loss of power (real or perceived), an impact on internal/team culture, and an overall sense of anxiety and uncertainty.

It’s important to remember that succession planning is not synonymous with executive search. Rather, it is an extension of strategic planning and is a board responsibility.

In this article, I offer five things chief executives need to know about succession planning to navigate the process with less worry and more confidence.

First, succession planning is not static. Like a strategic plan, a succession plan is a dynamic document that needs to be updated on a regular basis.

A concern we sometimes hear from chief executives is that the plan will become outdated because they don’t plan to retire any time soon. However, our response is that a departure may not be planned. A good succession plan builds organizational readiness and deepens board knowledge and engagement. Should there be an unforeseen departure because of illness, resignation, or a host of other reasons, the board must be prepared to address the situation in the moment.

Second, we recognize that picturing the organization beyond the chief executive’s leadership is challenging. We’re human, and chief executives invest so much of themselves in the organizations they lead. It can be difficult to separate the person from the position.

We worked with a chief executive who could not envision a future state of the organization without herself at the helm, and neither could her board. And, because some departures are due to serious illness or death, thinking about her own health and mortality made her very uncomfortable. Our request is for board members, donors, and staff members to be supportive and kind if your chief executive struggles with these topics.

Third, it’s not the chief executive’s choice who succeeds them. Chief executives do not have the power to choose their own successor and should never promise the role to anyone.

A chief executive once told me that she would leave the organization as soon as she identified the next person to take her place. She had invested so much in the organization, and she wanted to “hand it off” to someone she trusted because the organization was “her baby.” Another example is when chief executives choose a staff person they want as their successor and make the decision public. The board alone has the authority to choose the organization’s leader and current chief executives should not attempt to influence or control that process.

Fourth, succession planning is even more important for founders. Founding chief executives have a different relationship with the organization than successive chiefs. As a result, boards must ensure that operating procedures and practices are well established and followed by all.

It can be easy to dismiss founder’s syndrome when we think about succession planning because in the future, the founder will no longer be with the organization. While that may be technically true, founders often have a hard time divorcing themselves from the organization, and so they linger on the sidelines.

We worked with a chief executive who succeeded a founder and started the job with no donor database or documentation of any kind. The founder’s response was that “it’s all in his head” and planned to disseminate knowledge by meeting with her regularly. Founders, or chief executives who have served for a long period of time, should not assume that the new chief will want or need continuous communication beyond a one- or two-week transition period.

Finally, we acknowledge that chief executives are tired. Chief executives have managed organizations during a pandemic, economic downturns, social and political turmoil, and unprecedented workforce disruptions. Many boards put the task of succession planning on the chief executive despite the fact that it is a board responsibility, and the last thing chief executives need is another item on their to-do list.

Chief executives are weary, and a short-term sabbatical may be what’s needed to rest and recharge. Of all the scenarios that a board must consider when planning such as retirement, resignation, or medical leave, a sabbatical is often overlooked but it shouldn’t be.

We are grateful for all that chief executives have done and continue to do, but they have to find the energy and use their agency and authority to tell the board what they need to be successful. Board members need to listen, and then lead the succession planning process to ensure the health of the organization and the people involved.

Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO

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