What Is Succession Planning? Find a Common Understanding

What Is Succession Planning? Find a Common Understanding

What Is Succession Planning? Find a Common Understanding


In our experience, when someone uses the “S-Word” in a nonprofit organization or board agenda it really means: “It is time for somebody to go.”


Imagine if you are an executive director, serving for 25 years, and then at a board meeting somebody raises their hand, out of the blue, and says, “I think we should be talking about succession planning.” As the executive director how are you going to take that?


“You are fired.”


The word “succession” is met with a variety of responses. It feels like the leader’s days are numbered until a replacement is found. Or it can be a word that encourages a continuity of leadership by planning ahead to develop a leadership pipeline in times of an unforeseen vacancy.


Our definition of Succession Planning: assuring a continuity of leadership during times of transition or vacancy to sustain organizations and to safeguard the mission in the community.


Succession planning does not begin as a step-by-step strategy, but as a conversation. The organization has a mission and a history that is unique. There are variables of the past, present and future in reaching goals and providing service. Remember that fundamentally a nonprofit organization is about a group of people working together with a passion for a cause.


A Common Understanding


So start with an organic conversation about succession planning and take the time to define what it means to find a common understanding. Do not wait until a departure is announced. Make it a board agenda item or have a facilitated conversation with senior staff.


Think of succession planning as an opportunity to leverage capacity-building and human capital in your organization.


We suggest getting a snapshot of your organization’s current landscape with a succession planning self-assessment guide. Download and view the PDF.


This kind of a survey allows conversation to open up beyond a five-minute agenda item. Give your people the chance to look around the room and to talk about the sustainability of leadership in the organization through “Ah-ha” talking points. Before creating a strategic plan for covering vacancies, talk about it!


A great way to get the conversation rolling is to look around the room and ask, “What would happen if Susan or James could not come into work tomorrow?”


After the initial awkwardness, try guiding talk to the various roles of the organization by talking about what people do. Think of preparing for a vacancy before it occurs in terms of people and responsibilities. This sets succession planning in new language that thinks about the contributions of leaders and what
it would mean to the organization to not have them around.


“When our organization started using the word ‘succession’ about 8 years ago I thought it meant, ‘Time for you to leave.’ But since talking about it, I now feel comfortable retiring in a few months with the state of leadership in good order.” – Workshop Participant


A Generative Conversation


Eventually, this leads to a conversation about the leadership pool available in terms of succession. We suggest that this is a good time to leverage capacity-building and human capital in the organization.


Human capital in a nonprofit organization is not unlike financial capital. They both require discussion and strategy to develop.


All of the people in the organization make up your human capital from staff to board members (and future board members) to volunteers. Ask your team, “How do we build human capital along with financial capital?” or “Do we have a grooming process that acts as a pipeline to leadership?”


This turns the succession conversation to growing the people in your nonprofit and developing the voluntary and professional leadership within the organization. This pool of leadership becomes a resource during succession planning.


Another way to frame the conversation is to talk about the reputation of the organization in the community you serve. Are you known as a great place to work and to volunteer?


This speaks to the culture of your nonprofit, which can help determine how to invite new people, new staff, and new contributors to your cause. A culture of succession starts with an open, honest and generative conversation about the people and mission of the organization, not a plan or strategy.


If you want to learn more about succession planning and creating a culture of leadership continuity in your nonprofit, then join us at our next Succession Planning Workshop in March 2021!


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