4 Kinds of Succession Planning

A relay race handoff from a white hand to a black hand to illustrate succession planning

by Molly Penn

Succession planning is a hot topic these days!  This article will give you tips for navigating 4 different kinds of succession planning.  As organizational development specialists who work with an equity forward lens, we have gotten a lot of inquiries about succession planning so we thought we’d share these strategies. 

Succession planning refers to four different, but related ideas: board succession; planned leadership succession; emergency succession; and staff succession.  In this article, we share some strategies for thinking about each of these, in particular with an eye toward building equitable leadership in the sector.

Why is Succession Planning Important?

Succession planning helps ensure that if or when someone leaves your organization, your programs and services are not interrupted.  It ensures that your organization can continue delivering on its mission.

Before starting to think about succession planning at any level in your organization, it is important to take stock of your culture, especially with regard to the degree to which white supremacy governs your culture.  White supremacy is the water we all swim in so it is present in every organization, even those led by BIPOC folks.  We have developed an organizational assessment tool based on the Characteristics of White Supremacy and their Antidotes by Tema Okun (with her permission) that can help you take stock of this before you get started – contact us if you are interested in this.

Board Succession Planning

Board succession planning is really about maintaining a healthy degree of turnover in your board. You’ll want to refer to your by-laws to determine what the rules are with regard to terms and term limits – particularly as they pertain to key roles like board Chair(s), officers and committee chairs.  It is important for these roles to rotate with some degree of regularity to ensure a diversity of perspectives in leadership roles on the board.  It also provides a variety of thought partners for the CEO.

You can change your by-laws if you get a vote from the board to approve the changes.  It is important to open this conversation with your board members – and to do so, you might use these helpful generative BoardSource Questions.

As you are considering bringing on more board members of color, it is important to have these discussions to ensure you are building a more inclusive culture that will feel welcoming to people who have not traditionally been at the board table.

Planned Leadership Succession

It can be difficult to talk about succession planning for the CEO role because it heightens people’s anxiety about the prospect of the CEO leaving.  This is a big transition in an organization’s life, particularly in founder-led organizations, but not talking about it will make it that much harder to navigate than if you plan for it.

When thinking about a planned succession, it is helpful to start by taking stock of the organization’s current capacity.  This is all important information for a new CEO when they come in.  A good way of thinking about capacity is the nonprofit lifecycle model, put forth by Susan Kenney Stevens.  Start by placing each aspect of your organization on the lifecycle using this Lifecycle Diagnostic.  You will notice that different aspects of your organization may be in different phases of the lifecycle, but look for where the predominance is.  This will help you understand the kinds of characteristics you may be seeking in a new leader.  You may want a new leader to solidify your current lifecycle phase, or you may want a leader with the skills and experience to bring you to the next phase.  If you have a bit more money to invest, you can get a customized assessment and capacity building plan using the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (we are certified facilitators of this tool).

Another thing to consider is the implications of your current CEO’s tenure in the organization and whether there is an indication that you might want to appoint an Interim Executive Director – an ED who is not a candidate for the permanent position but who can help people grieve or disengage from the founder or long term leader and make space for new approaches.  You might use this CEO Tenure quick assessment to help you determine if your organization would benefit from an interim Executive Director (we know many of these so we can refer you).

In the case of a planned CEO succession there are some housekeeping things you should focus on getting in order.

  • It is important to make sure all job descriptions and roles for staff are clear and up to date. This will help a new CEO understand who does what.  Also make sure your organizational chart is up to date because a candidate may want to see that.
  • If you feel your organization has a strong culture you want to maintain, it will be very important to ensure you have a set of values that speak to the culture and that they are clear and shared by all.
  • Finally, it is important to codify all the internal processes and systems – everything from hiring and onboarding, to accounts receivable and payable, to grantwriting and reporting, to program management and evaluation.

Finally, it is important to get clear on the board’s role in a planned leadership succession process.  There are things for your board to pay attention to before, during and after the succession process to be sure they help make the transition as smooth as possible.  Use this bell curve image to help you understand the Board Role in Leadership Succession.

Emergency Succession Planning

“What if your CEO got hit by a bus tomorrow?”  This provocative question is often used to help people understand the critical importance of emergency succession planning.  As the title implies, this entails planning for the unlikely event that some emergency may suddenly and unexpectedly render your Executive Director unavailable.  If that were to happen, would your organization be able to continue its programs and services uninterrupted?

Emergency succession planning involves recording the crucial information needed to keep the organization running – things like who are the check signatories, who are your organization’s bankers, what are your bank accounts, what are your insurance policies and who is your broker, where do you keep key information in the organization, etc.  As you can hear, these are all critical pieces of information that tend to be held by the CEO and not shared with anyone else.  Completing an emergency succession form allows you to share that information with at least one other person – typically the board chair and/or a senior staff person you trust.

We find emergency succession plans can also be incredibly helpful even in a planned succession process – they allow you to hand the new CEO all the critical information to make their job easier.  We have an easy to navigate form to help you plan for emergency succession so contact us for more information on this form.

Staff Succession Planning

Staff succession planning is driven by similar principles.  It is about ensuring that you can identify successors for key staff roles and that institutional memory does not depart with a departing staff member.  Staff succession planning tends to be a more regular part of organizational life – good managers focus on this all the time.

Staff succession planning is very closely connected to your performance evaluations so it is important to do regular performance evaluations, even if you are not yet in a position to tie them to salary increases.

Once you evaluate your staff performance, it is important for the senior team (or the CEO) to place them on this 9 Box Grid according to their current performance and the potential you see in them.  Here is a 9box guide for placement.  Do they have the potential to rise into higher roles?  Does their performance merit that they could be promoted or does it indicate they should be moved to a different kind of role?  And this matrix shows the implications for where you rated them on the first 9 box grid.  This 9box implications for action can help you in making decisions about staff so you are spotting under-performers quickly and being decisive about their future, and similarly you are spotting strong performers and continuing to develop their potential.

For those staff who have good potential, create what we call a 70/20/10 development plan for them.   Adult learners learn best by doing, so 70% should be on the job stretch assignments, which can be a great staff development tool.  20% should be peer coaching or mentoring – if there is a strong performer you might encourage them to mentor or coach someone who is a rising strong performer.  It is incredibly flattering to the strong performer and it is extremely helpful to the rising performer.  Only 10% of staff development should be a formal course or class the person could take to help them build skills they can’t learn on the job.

At PENN Creative Strategy, we help organizations navigate these various aspects of succession planning.  Contact us for more information on how we can help you plan for the continuity and sustainability of your mission.





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