Succession Planning as a Tool for Equity

4 women of different ethnicities talking to illustrate succession planning

By Molly Penn and Marissa Lewis

We’ve been reflecting on the leadership changes that are unfolding (and have been predicted for years) in the nonprofit sector as they intersect with our considerations around equity.  We recently created a workshop series focused on succession planning with an equity lens, which was met with  appreciation by nonprofits from New York City to Western Massachussetts, so we decided to share some of it here.

Succession planning is not just about leadership turnover – that’s the common assumption, but when done well, succession planning is a management tool that supports equity in your organization, sustainability in your mission and programs, business continuity and prevents the burnout of staff in a field marked by high rates of burnout.  We see this as a strong business case for why it is important to think about succession planning, but more importantly it is a mission case for why this is important.

3 Levels of Succession Planning:

There are 3 levels of succession planning to consider in nonprofit organizations: Board succession planning, CEO succession planning and staff succession planning.  We’ll address each of these in turn.

1. Board Succession Planning

The first place to look when it comes to board succession planning is your By-laws.  What do your By-laws say about terms and term limits?  That is a clue for when you should anticipate board members having to step off the board.  That is a good starting point to begin sketching out a timeframe of anticipated board turnover.  From there, you’ll want to create a board matrix that tracks the skills and connections you already have on the board and helps you identify those that are missing.  This is where you can include considerations around the diversity of your board as well.  These are a couple of tools to help you plan for board succession in a pro-active way so you can curate the board you want and need.

If you are looking to diversify your board, it is important to ensure that you’ve done some work on the board culture.  Boards in our sector tend to be predominantly white.  Working on board culture in this context means interrogating the ways white supremacist culture shows up in your board (who holds the power and how is that manifested? To what degree does your board respect frontline staff and/or participant voice as sources of truth? Does your board express appropriate humility around understanding the corporate expertise doesn’t always directly translate to nonprofit? What experience or characteristics does your board value and prioritize in fellow board members?). To create an opening with boards to begin to talk about these dynamics, BoardSource USA developed this helpful set of questions to open conversations about diversity with your board.

We want to point out the opportunity here to interrogate our assumptions about board members and money.  Particularly if you are looking to infuse more diversity and inclusion at the board level.  Dr. Elizabeth Castillo points out that boards have a propensity to prioritize fundraising over everything else (which leads to skewed power dynamics between boards and CEOs).  She urges us to consider intangible, and non-monetary resources prospective members can bring to the organization, such as relational capital, intellectual capital, cultural capital and political capital.  If diversity is one of your goals on the board, you will want to discuss things like the time of day of your meetings (and whether that is accessible to candidates who have full-time jobs and/or children).  You’ll want to examine your assumptions and interrogate your mental models around what is important to your board.  If you are interested in a holistic board self-assessment that includes questions of equity, please contact us.

1. (a) The Board’s Role in CEO Succession

Recently, there have been many leadership changes in organizations around the sector.  In many of those, the boards decided that it would be a good idea to hire leaders of color to replace departing white leaders.  It’s true that it makes sense for your organization’s leader to reflect the community served by the organization.   What is often overlooked though, is the impact of power dynamics when a white board is “supervising” a CEO of color.

A survey by BoardSource USA, called Leading With Intent, showed that 80% of boards prioritize knowledge of the communities served, while only 64% prioritize membership in the communities served.  That means they (predominantly white boards) believe that a board member who professes “knowledge” of the community is as valid a voice about what the community needs, as is a member of that community.   In fact, they prefer that to including members of the communities served on the board.

The recruitment and selection process needs to be different than it has been in the past as well.  For example, you need to have conversations about “qualifications” and whether your are prioritizing formal degrees (which have historically been less accessible to folks of color), which will have an impact on which candidates are eligible.  You need to consider the networks where you post the job opening to ensure you are reaching a wide diversity of candidates. Be careful of your rationale for seeking an ED of color (don’t just use it to check a box).  You can’t pretend to be “race blind” in the process, there is no such thing – so you need to be intentional about whether you want an ED of color (and read up on SCOTUS’s affirmative action ruling and its implications to protect yourselves), or you are open to diverse candidates.  Also, don’t expect a new ED of color (a first for your organization) to be responsible for ensuring your organization adopts DEIA principles.  That is a whole job all by itself, and it’s unfair to put that on a new ED or to assume that a person of color is willing to do that work. Finally, if you are changing history in your organization by recruiting your first ED of color, make sure your organization isn’t in any kind of crisis or you will be setting that person up to fail.

In addition to what to avoid, we want to share what kinds of supports you can proactively put in place to ensure the new ED can be successful.  These are all things that the board can step up and play a role in to help the new ED be positioned for success.

  • Introduce them to funders, elected officials and partners – broker these new relationships on behalf of your organization
  • If they came to you without experience in financial management, get them training or staff support in managing this aspect of their job
  • Ensure they understand risk management if that is important by securing professional development for them
  • Coach and support them in managing inherited staff or managing staff departures as needed (most new leaders eventually like to recruit their own team – be careful not to punish a leader of color for doing that when white leaders do it routinely).
  • Be aware of bias in responding to staff departures or complaints – if staff leave, don’t get concerned that the new ED is problematic unless and until you have overwhelming evidence. This happens routinely.
  • Most of all, remember that this person was your board’s choice – therefore it is your role to be their advocate and ally.

2. CEO or Executive Director Succession Planning

A good CEO or ED is always thinking about the inevitability of their own succession.  Does that mean they are actively planning for it?  Not necessarily.  But they recognize that their tenure is finite and that they have a mindset of continually growing the leadership capacity of their staff.  They see their role as supporting others in taking on more responsibility rather than making all the decisions themselves. As folks of color and younger folks are stepping into leadership roles, we are seeing more shared leadership practices, where the role of supervisors really shifts from directive to that of coaching and facilitating their staff and practicing shared decision-making. What we are talking about is ceding “power” – no longer looking at leadership roles as holding all the power in the organization.

We’ve all heard of founders syndrome.  Founders Syndrome is when any long-tenured leader (not necessarily the founder) has become synonymous with the organization.  In other words, they ARE the organization, or they are considered so by stakeholders inside and outside the organization.  It’s easy for this to happen, especially if the incumbent leader is charismatic.  So if any of that sounds like a possibility for your organization, then it might make sense to consider an Interim Executive Director.

In many cases, ED’s or CEOs are new to the top leadership role.  So impostor syndrome is something to consider if that is the case.  Think about what kinds of supports a new ED will need – and even more so if your organization is transitioning from a white ED to an ED of color.  It is important to support them with funders – introduce them to the organization’s funders and encourage them to start building those relationships from the beginning to ensure your funders don’t lean back and take a “wait and see” approach.

Also, it is important to acknowledge that there is no comprehensive training program for this role.  It is a challenging role because it sits between managing the staff, and being supervised by a board.  Many times new leaders come into the role without having knowledge of every aspect of the job – such as financial management, legal obligations, fundraising, etc.  So be proactive about making space for what they don’t know yet and figure out how to get them the training or coaching they’ll need to do a great job in the role.

A note about Funders’ Role in Succession

There is a proven under-resourcing of leadership transitions (that “wait and see” attitude we referred to above) which particularly harms leaders of color in those roles.  All eyes are on a new ED to see how they will put their mark on the organization and what kind of leader they will be – they can’t do any of that if their organization suddenly becomes under-resourced just because they are new.  That is precisely the time when investments should flow – to give them a chance to show what they can do.  Leading Forward is a consortium of funders who recognize this and are prioritizing support for organizations going through leadership transitions.

3. Staff Succession Planning

A good leader (any internal leader – the ED or senior staff or managers) is always considering the movement of people within and out of the organization.  In other words, we understand that people always want to grow their skills during their professional life.  So we acknowledge that they either have to grow within their job, grow by taking on more responsibility, or grow out of the organization and on to bigger opportunities.  So what does it mean to lead with succession in mind?

  • Adopting that growth mindset with regard to the human beings in your organization
  • Being aware of the inevitability of your own potential succession as a leader and the responsibility of ensuring that when that happens, there will be minimal disruption
  • Being a coach, mentor, facilitator rather than a decider, command and control leader.

One of the best ways to encompass all of this is to practice shared leadership. This means training internal leaders in how to make this mental shift.  It means holding regular supportive meetings to reinforce this style of leadership.  It also involves implementing shared decision-making structures to build the agency and autonomy of staff.

One focus area in building shared or distributed leadership structures is the practice of decision-making within the organization.  Does everyone in your organization understand how decisions are made?  Or are they made by a small group of senior leaders behind closed doors?  Considerations of equity in staff succession planning are really about power – who has the power and authority to make decisions?

Succession planning for staff also may mean hiring new people, which means really interrogating the ways in which traditional hiring practices favor white people. Remember, for example that white people tend to mentor white people.  So on the one hand, we want to value prior experience over formal degrees because people of color have been historically kept out of degree granting institutions.  However, valuing experience also tends to favor white people. Don’t be afraid to consider on the job training for folks – so even here, you are hiring for what you can glean is their performance, and their potential.  It’s important to design the hiring process to uncover those things to help you make sound, unbiased decisions.

The last piece of building a culture of succession is just that – looking at and being intentional about – your organization’s culture. Culture is the invisible air we breathe every day.  We just breathe automatically, so we don’t notice it.  But it’s there.  Anytime there is a group of people, culture starts to form.  Cultures is the set of unspoken practices, principles values that govern the way people in that community interact with one another.  Culture either happens automatically (and is based on what we each bring into the space) or we can try to create or guide it intentionally.  The best place to start in terms of guiding your organization’s culture is your values.

Values are the best tool for being explicit about the kind of culture you want in your organization.  We like to think of culture as an iceberg – the top of the iceberg (the visible part) is practices – the way we interact with each other day to day.  The bottom part of the iceberg (the part under the surface, that is not visible, and is usually much bigger than the visible part) are our values, our sense of purpose, and principles (which can be positive or negative). In being explicit about framing or living your values, you are making the invisible visible and helping to communicate expected practices.  When your organization has strong values, you will find that you attract job candidates who are excited to be part of that culture.  So over time, you naturally attract people aligned with your values, which serves to strengthen the culture.

We also encourage building a culture of trust in your organization.  This takes buy-in and lots and lots of dialogue.  We like to think about the 3-C’s of Trust:

  • Capability (skills and abilities);
  • Communication (information sharing, confidentiality, feedback); and
  • Curiosity (new ideas, thinking outside the box, sharing learnings).

This creates an environment where it is safe for people in your organization to take risks and learn from each other’s mistakes without fear of shame or reprisal.

Finally, we want to amplify restorative HR practices.  Here too, the “traditional” HR practices were created by the white men who built the society of business.  There are other ways to deal with interpersonal conflict that do not marginalize, victimize or punish.  They allow for relationships to grow from conflict and mutual accountability to flourish.

In this article, we have talked about succession planning with an equity lens.  To be more explicit, in addition to equity in general, we are talking about building spaces where Black people and those with other marginalized identities can thrive.  This means acknowledging the historic marginalization they have experienced; and intentionally cultivating space where they can grow, feel safe to bring their whole selves to the process, and ultimately thrive.  We have many resources to share on this topic, so if this feels relevant to where your organization is right now, please be in touch with us!


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