Succession planning is a process, and to be successful the organization’s chief staff officer and board leadership must prepare for succession planning before starting the actual process.

Consider the four walls to a sturdy foundation. The four walls in the foundation of succession planning are:

  1. Leadership support for the process.
  2. Current job-related, outcomes-focused documentation.
  3. Ongoing performance management system.
  4. Commitment to professional development for staff, with an annual budget to enable approved training.

Foundational factor #1: Leadership support

Succession planning will require resources – time, people, and money. Fortunately, it is an investment that pays dividends on many levels. Succession planning also requires a formalized commitment, through the setting of board policy, to raise the potential that the strategic investment made by the current year’s board of directors is sustained by successive boards.

The duty to ensure that current and future boards are aware of their succession planning responsibilities rests with the chief staff officer. The senior employee must reinforce that succession planning is instilled in the culture of the organization. The chief staff officer needs to be mindful that most board leaders are anxious about the prospect of having to manage a major hiring process during their term of office. Volunteers have enough to do without the added responsibility of a CEO search and hiring process. “Just don’t leave on my watch,” is an often-heard request from incoming chief elected officers. Therefore, succession planning helps overcome the uncertainty of staff change by preparing existing staff to step into key jobs as they become available.

The chief staff officer needs to positively reinforce with the board that succession planning is an investment in the future, mitigating some of the cost, effort, and at times even disruption which can arise when an organization suddenly finds itself without staff.

Foundational factor #2: Documenting for operational continuity

Consider for a moment all of the existing sources of information presently housed within an organization which provide insight on what the organization is expected to accomplish in carrying out its mission.

Members may look to the founding organizational documents – letters patent and by-laws. The board of directors may look to the strategic plan, annual business plan, the budget, and terms of reference for committees and task forces. The CEO and other staff may look to their job descriptions, board resolutions (minutes), and the tangible outcomes assigned to them for projects and tasks during a specific time period (monthly, quarterly, etc.).

The challenge for many with an urgent need to access this information is knowing where to find it. Imagine an event where the chief staff officer has a serious accident and cannot come to the office nor tell an employee (or volunteer) where vital information is located.

Operational continuity is an important expectation that boards must set, and require their CEO to meet. The challenge is two-fold in many associations and charities: (1) the information may not be on paper but in the memories of individuals; (2) what printed information does exist is scattered across computers, files, minute books, policy and procedure manuals, archives (electronic and cardboard boxes), etc. Too often a chief staff officer or board makes a decision not knowing the same decision (perhaps even a better one) was made just a few years before!

Therefore, the deliverable for the chief staff officer is to create a centralized repository of all relevant information on the policies and success criteria that define what the organization does, for whom, achieving what benefits and outcomes. For most, it is a major undertaking requiring a project plan and possibly even extra staff resources (e.g., a retired member, summer student or intern, or an unemployed association manager who needs some temporary work).

While the information-gathering step may be daunting, it is integral to effective succession planning. The repository of information needs to be accessible, and its location known to at least one other staff person and to senior volunteers (e.g., officers of the organization). Where there is confidential information, it can be protected by password and/or stored off-site (e.g., with legal counsel, the auditor, etc.) so long as key personnel know how to retrieve the information.

Until such time as the relevant information is gathered and appropriately catalogued, the chief staff officer needs to create a file that contains the information to answer this question: “what information does my successor need to immediately know about what to do today, and how to do this job effectively in the near and medium term?”

Foundational factor #3: Evaluating employees

Employers who want to develop the abilities of staff to meet the evolving needs of the organization must have the means to identify what each employee does well, where the employee must be more effective, and how to close the gap between present and future performance requirements.

It is simply good management practice to communicate what one expects from an employee and to review what expectations have been met or not (indeed, it is also good governance practice in the case of a board of directors reviewing the performance of the CEO). Yet, many employers do not set specific objectives for employees or provide feedback on the employee’s performance. To not do so is demoralizing for staff; people appreciate knowing where they excel and how they can become better. Employees also value employers who demonstrate an interest in them and their ongoing career development.

It is a fact that no employee can do a job perfectly all of the time. As organizations evolve, so too do the expectations of members and the competencies the employee must possess to do a job effectively. A performance management process enables both parties – employer and employee – to recognize and reward good performance, and to identify and mitigate weaker performance, including the absence of skills and experience.

The performance management system will address gaps between the employer’s needs and the employee’s performance. The gaps will be closed through a variety of means – mentoring, coaching, training, etc.

The Canadian Society of Association Executives has generic job evaluation forms available through its website. Organizations that do not currently have a process for performance management need to make it a high priority before embarking on succession planning.

Foundational factor #4: Commitment to professional development for staff

Not-for-profit organizations need to have more than the means (financial and otherwise) to invest in the development of their employees; they need to make it an organizational value. The Human Resources Council for the Voluntary & Non-Profit Sector provides a number of resources to help organizations make the case and start the process to invest in staff and volunteer training.

Research among associations in Canada indicates that a not-for-profit organization should be allocating a minimum of one percent, and up to three percent, of total expenditures for professional development. Based on annual expenses of $1 million, an organization would be budgeting and spending up to $30,000 on training and professional development for employees as well as volunteers. In an article for the Canadian Society of Association Executives, by Leader Quest, it was suggested that the split between money invested in staff development and volunteer development should be two-thirds for employees; one-third for the member-leaders.

Staff development does not have to be based only upon the cost to attend courses, seminars, conferences, or for membership in professional associations. There are other opportunities for staff development that certainly require time, but do not require an outlay of cash. These development steps can include special internal projects; a new job assignment; formal training; committee assignments; mentoring; opportunities to be involved externally such as speaking at an event or volunteering in the community.

Externally, professional and trade associations such as the local chamber of commerce may need member representatives to help on activities such as education programs, special events, membership recruitment campaigns, etc. Local charities are also in need of volunteers, and there are free training and matching services to prepare individuals for available opportunities to serve. All of these are excellent opportunities for staff to become active, to establish a network, and to learn new skills that may not be available to them at work.

Content is © Jack Shand and the Canadian Society of Association Executives, 2009, and is reprinted with permission.

Jack Shand, CMC, CAE, is president of Leader Quest, a management consulting firm providing expert advice to not-for-profit organizations since 1997. Leader Quest specializes in executive search/staff recruitment, strategic planning, governance, and organizational reviews. Jack can be reached at 905-842-3845 and 1-877-929-4473, or jack-at-leaderquest-dot-com.