Succession Readiness: 10 actions to get you started

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People Processes: Clarity & Consistency


When I joined Vantage Point 10 years ago, overly pessimistic alarm-bells were ringing with stark projections of a not-for-profit leadership “gap” due to a mass exodus of senior leaders. With Baby Boomers redefining “normal” retirement age and exiting at a slower rate than anticipated, not-for-profits are demonstrating a more abundant reality, finding new leaders quickly and effectively, both developing from within and attracting from other sectors.

Still, the topic of Executive Director succession in the not-for-profit sector remains a hot topic.

Uncertainty breeds a desire to quickly answer complex questions with no simple answers: Should we wait until our longstanding Executive Director or other senior leader gives us notice before we start thinking about creating a succession plan? When and where do we begin to look for a new leader? How do we know what type of leader we will need to lead us into the future?

In addition to crafting an organization wide succession plan, I’ve suggested 10 actions you can take right now to prepare yourself and your organization for a leadership transition. When the following conditions are in place, an organization can expect a relatively smooth transition to new leadership, whenever it might occur.

  1. A strategic plan is in place with goals and objectives for the near term (up to three years), including objectives for developing leaders from within.
  2. The board evaluates the executive director annually on general performance and strategic goal achievement.
  3. The board, based on its annual self-evaluation, is satisfactorily performing its major governance responsibilities — ensuring relevant mission and vision, executive support and fiduciary oversight, policy development, and strategic planning.
  4. All staff members participate in an annual performance planning and review process, crafting stretch performance and development goals.
  5. The top management cohort, as a high performing team:
    • Has a solid team culture in place in which members support one another and can reach decisions as a group efficiently and harmoniously;
    • Shares leadership of the organization with the executive in having significant input to all major decisions;
    • Can lead the organization in the absence of the executive; and
    • Has authority to make and carry out decisions within their respective areas of responsibility.
  6. Another staff person or board member shares important external relationships (e.g., major donors, funders, community leaders) maintained by the executive.
  7. A financial reserve is in place with a minimum of three months’ operating capital.
  8. Financial systems and reports are up-to-date and provide the data needed by the board and senior managers responsible for the agency’s financial strength and viability.
  9. Operational manuals exist for key administrative systems and are easily accessible and up-to-date.
  10. Program staff have documented their activities in writing and have identified another staff person who can carry their duties in an emergency.

This succession planning work will take time and organizational resources. Prioritize gradual steps with activities and timelines for making positive progress, equipping your organization to ultimately emerge from a leadership transition even stronger!

About the Author

After working in London and completing her MBA at INSEAD in France and Singapore, Maria Turnbull joined Vantage Point’s team in 2006. Rooted in the not-for-profit sector through numerous leadership roles with the British and Canadian Red Cross Societies, OXFAM and Amnesty International, Maria loves...

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