Governance Q&A: Succession planning

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Some of my board members went to a governance workshop and came back saying a succession plan was urgent, in case I got hit by a bus. I have a good administrator who acts for me during vacation, but frankly, she is not suitable for an executive director role. The other three staff are far too inexperienced. How do I prepare a plan without either raising the administrator's hopes unrealistically or upsetting her?

I strongly recommend you get board members working with you on this. If you are hit by a bus, you aren't going to be doing the hiring. An ED Succession Plan is a board document.

The key processes as I see them are: advance readiness for change, interim arrangements, executive search and executive transition.

Readiness for change

Have you documented the key processes you handle? Kept your job specification up to date? Kept staff well informed and engaged in planning, trends, relationships, board activities and such? Kept your office, contact database and working files organized? Involved volunteers or staff in key relationships and partnerships to keep them organizational, not just personal?

The problematic aspect here is evaluation of senior staff for readiness to advance. You only have one such person, and it sounds as if the topic hasn't been discussed during her performance reviews. What does she see as her career path or working future, and what training and education does she need to pursue that path? Such questions should be asked of all who report to you, regardless of any board push for a succession plan. If she voices a desire to move into your position when and if you move on, talk about the skills, knowledge and experience needed before you could recommend her for the role. The longer the list, the more she might realize her hopes are not realistic. But she might surprise you by revealing how hard she is willing to work for the opportunity.

Even if you think the issue is personality rather than skills, training is available to help people become more creative, visionary and open to change. Perhaps you see her as too detail-oriented; she might see an organization where no one but her pays attention to details so she has to. If someone else took over some administrative work, could she be given a chance to manage a new initiative and demonstrate additional abilities?

Interim arrangements

You and the board should consider the options for keeping up the ED work for several months or more. Would someone from within act, and if so, would that person be eligible to apply for the permanent position? Note: often acting appointees are explicitly not eligible in order to prevent assumptions being made about a fait accompli. Would a board member step down from the board and into the ED position temporarily (paid or unpaid)? Would an interim executive director be hired from outside? Would the ED work be shared among two or three people, and if so, how?

Depending on your organization's culture, the board could analyze and prioritize these options so that when an interim decision is needed, it can be made very quickly.

Executive search

Organizations should not jump into recruitment or expect the process to be short if there is no obvious insider ready to move up. The organization must think strategically about what kinds of skills and attributes it needs for the future, and what adjustments that might mean for board operations, board-staff relations, delegated authority, and other such aspects of an organization that involve the senior staff person. A financial review is essential to know what compensation range to set in order to attract a good pool of candidates without bankrupting the organization. Staff input is extremely valuable; listen to what staff want from their next leader.

Once a new job specification is developed, the recruitment work of developing and placing ads, using networks and personal databases, screening, interviewing and more begins. Months later, it ends with a negotiated and accepted job offer.

The succession plan deals with who does all this work. Can the organization afford a professional executive recruiter specializing in the nonprofit sector? Even with some outsourcing, how much extra time will some board members need to spend on recruitment, and how will the rest of the board be involved? A new task force will likely be needed; who (by position) on the board would sit on that task force? If there will be an outside search consultant, how will they be chosen and who will they work with?

Transition

The work is not over when a job offer is accepted. How will the board and staff ensure a climate of success for the new hire? There should be a thorough plan for orientation, introductions to key stakeholders, knowledge-sharing, mentoring, events and more.

To get back to your question, think in terms of the role of the administrator if she were not chosen but needed to be involved in orientation and training of your successor. Use ethical language in discussing such a role - being fair to the new individual, being focused on mission achievement, since having a new ED fail not only harms organizational work but makes the next round of hiring much more difficult. The succession plan can include a requirement that staff performance reviews are kept up to date along with their specs, so the new person can draw appropriately on skills and knowledge and maintain career development initiatives already underway.

Summary

The entire succession plan can be written without including a single name, and is critical for continued operation of the organization through a major change. But you, as the immediate supervisor of the administrator, need to properly deal with this individual's hopes and development needs regardless of the existence of a succession plan.

Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her consulting and training business to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership. She is a respected international voice on governance, strategic thinking and ethics. Jane can be reached at jane@garthsonleadership.ca.

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