Report on Effective Succession Planning in Jewish Nonprofits

by Steven J. Noble

Ok , now what? … which, I suspect, is better than … Ok, so what? In organizational life, however, there doesn’t seem to be a huge world of difference between these two flippant queries; I say this more experientially than cynically. Ok, again, now that “everything is illuminated” or almost so … and more hard data and compelling findings are available on practices and perspectives relative to the highly emotive succession planning topic in Jewish nonprofits, will all this be positioned more front and center on the personal and professional agendas of CEOs, board chair and funders?

What will it REALLY take to raise the volume and catalyze action on this organizational imperative? Will it take three purportedly sudden, unplanned CEO departures of long tenured executives and with no immediate successors on hand, in major Jewish nonprofits?

To change the tenor of this column and focus on the research report , I am most appreciative of the 23 funders – major Jewish foundations, federations and other well known Jewish nonprofits – that provided financial support for Effective CEO Transitioning/Leadership Sustainability in North American Jewish Nonprofit Organizations. There was demonstrable “across the board” recognition that this succession planning issue needed to be more quantifiably researched. (A link to the full report is here as well as JCSA, under whose auspices this report was written.) It is also most appropriate to acknowledge this online forum for its early spotlighting of the survey and encouraging CEO responses. Gratitude is also accorded to the 440 respondents who provided highly candid, insightful and, at times, painful insight and input.

Before highlighting just a few of the principal findings, I would underscore that effective CEO transitioning is inextricably linked to the internal vs. external CEOs debate presented in prior columns. Effective and timely CEO transitioning is, more importantly, entwined with the challenges of maintaining and accelerating the essential talent pipeline of young and mid-range professionals in Jewish communal service. The concerns also bear significantly on sizable percentages of # 2’s waiting in the wings – a large segment of whom are women.

The 440 respondents in the survey represent a wide and balanced cross-section of agencies (as well as regions and size organizations) in the “organized” Jewish community. Respondents head up federations, JCCs, Day Schools, camps, social/human/aging services, Hillels, advocacy groups, foundations, national agencies, etc. Some have held these positions for more than 30 years while some for less than five.

So what are the major findings and ensuing recommendations in the survey?

First, the “system” appears to be woefully remiss in ensuring appropriate processes and support for organizational/leadership continuity. Just 6.3% of all respondents reported that their organizations had written Emergency Back-Up Plans. (An EBP is a written document detailing what’s to be done with a sudden an unexpected CEO departure). Only 7.1% of respondents indicated that their organizations had a board-adopted succession policy. Add to that 33 respondents who skipped the question and the percent shrinks to 4%! (Succession Policy provides guidance and measured steps for a point in time in the FUTURE when there is a planned or unplanned CEO departure). These two findings are alarm bells enough for Jewish organizations to be more responsible and accountable to their staffs, boards, funders and, most fundamentally, to their constituencies being served.

The finding also shed much needed light on the sad, but widespread lack of proactive planning by CEOs for a truly meaningful and contributory post-agency life – which can include “encore careers”. We learn more of the reasons for their hesitancy to “let go” at appropriate stepping down stages. They relate, in part, to the lame duck syndrome, real and personal economic security as well as a tendency to feel that there are no likely successors. Moreover, findings also relate to gender issues in succession planning as well as what is the appropriate board role.

Each of the 10 findings is linked to specific and concrete recommendations for action … not just shelving archiving, or extolling, as is the case of so many similar reports and conferences before this. It is hoped that at upcoming board meetings, national meetings of “umbrella” associations representing fields, professional meetings of executives (and maybe even semi-annual convenings of very select influentials), these issues will not once again just be discussed/lamented but, rather some very affirmative and present action will be forthcoming. Absent that, a good many good people feel that in the next few years we will assuredly see far more abrupt and painful CEO departures, poorly “planned” for both loyal and committed incumbents and for their hosting organizations.

Dr. Steven J. Noble, Managing Director, Noble Consulting Associates Inc,/Adjunct Prof. Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Boston Univ. Graduate School of Management and former Senior Director of Mandel EDP 1 and former Sr. VP, Birthright Israel.