Who’s Up Next? Organizations Planning for Succession
Non-profit organizations depend very heavily on the chief executive officer (CEO) or executive director. This is the person who leads the agency and turns the mission statement into a reality. When the top leadership is creative, energetic, charismatic, and successful the non-profit experiences a period of wonderful growth and development. It is very hard to think about replacing the person who has not only built the organization through his/her leadership but has been an inspiration to volunteer leadership and professional staff.
It is not easy for an organization to think about and develop a plan for replacing a successful executive and sometimes the circumstances can make the task even more difficult. When the incumbent CEO gives notice of his/her desire to move on to another position or plans to retire from his/her professional career, generally he/she gives the agency a number of months notice and a search process can be developed and implemented. However, when a person leaves a position suddenly, this can cause a small crisis for the organization.
The best time for an organization to plan for the succession of the leading professional is when everything is going well. When the agency is functioning effectively and efficiently, when volunteer and professional leadership is stable, when the services are delivered to clients, and when the financial situation is under control, this is when energy should be devoted to planning for the way the agency will replace their successful leader. It does not mean setting the process in motion, but it does mean planning how a process would be implemented if and when the time comes.
Of course, a question could be raised about whether it is appropriate to involve a sitting executive in planning for his/her succession. This is actually the best time to begin the planning process. The volunteer leadership knows when things are going well what can account for the organization’s success; it is always a combination of the skills, knowledge, personality, and chemistry with the board and the community. A well planned process can provide for the first three criteria but it is very difficult to plan for the right chemistry.
When the CEO is secure and knows he/she is valued then it is not difficult to ask him/her to assist the agency in planning for a process if and when he/she decides to leave the position. A competent professional knows this will make a very important contribution to the organization’s continuity and in the plans for the future. It will also provide an opportunity for the leadership to acknowledge the important contribution the incumbent is making to the non-profit and the community.
There are several steps that should be planned out well in advance that will guide the nature of the discussions that would involve the senior volunteer leadership of the board of directors. It could also include presidents and/or officers of the organization who may continue to play a significant role in the organization or in the community at large. The collective wisdom of those who have served the organization well should always be exploited as they can make a valuable contribution to succession process.
Once a group of appropriate people is selected then a series of meetings should be planned to discuss the present and future needs of the organization. During these meetings the incumbent can play an important role by sharing what has made him/her successful in the job and what body of knowledge and skills has been most important in fulfilling the responsibilities of the position. This process enables the group to think about what the agency will need moving forward.
This is not about evaluating the incumbent; it is about identifying the organization’s needs and planning for the agency’s successful continuity. The focus of the committee’s work should be developing and/or confirming a job description and developing the criteria to be used to evaluate candidates during an active search process. In addition, a framework should be developed for the search process to include the following components:
- determining who would be invited to join the search committee;
- where to place notices of the open position;
- who would be responsible for the initial review of resumes and/or job applications;
- what criteria would be employed to decide which candidates are selected for initial interviews;
- who, from the organization, would be asked to join the initial interviews;
- what is the staff role in interviewing or meeting the candidates;
- the committee should suggest additional concerns germane and unique to the specific organization.
An agency that plans for succession has an understanding of its needs and the direction in which it wants to head; there is clarity about both the organizational needs and its place in the community. By thinking ahead, the non-profit is demonstrating its commitment to excellence and is making a statement about the importance of professional leadership. The volunteer leadership has learned the importance of having a strong, dedicated, and committed professional in the CEO position.
By thinking about succession, especially in the case of an incumbent who has occupied the position for many years, the volunteer leadership is demonstrating that they have learned that good planning is one of the keys to success. Through a well planned process, the agency will be able to maintain the high quality service to the community. The search for a new CEO will not disrupt the organization’s standing because the organization’s leadership knows exactly what has to be accomplished and how to accomplish their goals.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.