Are You My Successor?

The Jewish community has not been particularly good at creating upward opportunities for its professionals and as a result we lose superstars to the greater nonprofit and social impact sector.

by Nanette Fridman

When my children were young, we used to read Dr. Seuss’ book, Are You My Mother? I hadn’t much thought about that book until I was reading the chapter entitled “Are You My Mentor?” in Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto, Lean In.

Every Executive Director and Board Chair should be asking themselves a similar question, “Are You My Successor?” Succession is a difficult topic. I have written about it before in my blog and referred to it as the “S” word.

Talking about what happens after the current leader is gone makes people uncomfortable. However, it is irresponsible for organizations not to think about succession. From the organization’s perspective, it should not be solely dependent on any one person, no matter how great, without plans for his/her departure, foreseen or unforeseen.

It is selfish for the current leader to not want to plan for and assist with his/her own timely hand-off of power to a carefully selected and well-groomed successor. Truly great leaders think about the organization and its legacy more than their own, but human nature is complicated. As Jim Collins writes in Good to Great, “Level-five leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts… In over three quarters of the comparison companies, we found executives who set their successors up for failure or chose weak successors, or both.”

The Jewish community sometimes tends to let our organizational leaders stay past what is beneficial for the organization. The Board should not be afraid to look out for the organization’s best interest and suggest a time-frame for transition of power that is healthy for the long-term viability of the organization, even if it differs from the leader’s ideal departure date. As an aside, this is one way to attract and retain talent in your organization. The Jewish community has not been particularly good at creating upward opportunities for its professionals and as a result we lose superstars to the greater nonprofit and social impact sector. We need to create space for advancement.

If there is not a leadership development (nominating) committee to discuss the Board Chair or President’s succession and a personnel or other committee of the Board dealing with the scenario for the lead professional’s departure, put these committees in place and task them now.

Here are some initial guiding questions to consider:

  1. What is the most likely time-frame for succession?
  2. Are there people on staff who might be interested and able, with training, to take over the executive position?
  3. Should you hire and groom an associate director or assistant director (for staff) if not?
  4. Is there a vice-president or long-serving board member who is being or can be groomed for lay leader succession? What training and skills do they need to be ready? Has his/her future role in the organization been discussed with them? How is he/she being mentored and trained?
  5. How can we put a team in place for succession: a leader with vision, a manager who makes the details happens, a veteran with experience and institutional knowledge, a newbie and an additional person?
  6. Are there identifiable external people who you think might be potential fits for the organization? What are their relationships to the organization today? What outreach or engagement should happen now, if any?
  7. What do the current leaders see as the three most important traits or characteristics for their successors to have?
  8. Has the current leadership documented exactly what their jobs entail? What are their functions?  What functions don’t they currently do but may be part of their peers’ jobs? What functions do they now do that should, in the future, ideally be done by someone else in the organization?
  9. What new skills are required at this point in the organization’s existence and based on its strategic plans?
  10. What organizational changes would succession require or suggest?
  11. What resources are needed to implement these succession plans?

This is an important topic, one worthy of exploration sooner rather than later. Feel free to bring a copy of Dr. Seuss’ book and use it as a way to break the ice and ask, “Are you my successor?” to get succession on the agenda.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development and governance for nonprofits. Nanette can be reached at fridmanstrategies@gmail.com.

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