The One Imperative for Effective Succession Planning

by Steven J. Noble

Truly effective succession planning can take place in Jewish nonprofits and it can, indeed, result in “win/win/win” situations – wins for the departing exec, his/her successor and the organization itself. Very arguably, at the nexus of these three positive outcomes is the imperative for there to be a proactive and planned exit for the “CEO”. Sadly, this does not happen frequently. More often, we see chaotic top leadership transitions, experienced as callous and calamitous.

Who are the real losers in ineffective (or no) planned succession? It is not just the incumbents, successors and organizations who suffer, but it is also organizational stakeholders and donors. What is less apparent is that it is also the organization’s future leadership, the talented young staff who seek enriching and progressive trajectories, but sadly perceive inexplicable disarray or blockage at the top. Why stay with this organization or in this field?

Two critical questions are: 1) How can the JCS “system” do a better job fostering organizational sustainability and enhancement through effective succession planning? 2) How can it do better in facilitating the transitional process for the “stepping down” exec? (At the article’s conclusion, five specific recommendations are offered to begin to address these challenges.)

Over the past twelve years I’ve been privileged to do executive coaching of nonprofit “CEO’s” – many in Jewish communal service. (For the purpose of this article “CEOs” are Executive Directors, EVPs, Heads of Schools, Presidents, etc.)

Does the following scenario sound familiar to you?

Aaron, now in his mid 60’s, is CEO at a mid-sized agency in a mid-sized city. On July 9th, he is at his wit’s end (and possibly the end of a long, successful career, too). Why? Let’s first go back 40 years.

After college Aaron secured a respectable entry job in a Jewish social service agency. For five years, he labored in those proverbial trenches and then stepped out for an MSW in Jewish Communal Service. Afterwards, and over fifteen trying years, Aaron laddered up, moving his growing family to different locales. Finally he became “CEO” at his current agency. During the past 15 years Aaron truly built the agency to where he (as do others in the community) considers himself, de facto founder. By all accounts Aaron has been quite successful. Indeed, it was Aaron’s “calling” and he fully devoted himself 24/5 and most Shabbat functions. All along, he populated the board and cultivated donors. Aaron has received countless Yasher Koachs! However, what Aaron didn’t receive were comprehensive, instructive, and honest performance reviews … from his nine, vastly different board chairs.

Aaron has felt “plateaued” in his job since 2010, and/but also now feels somewhat entitled to maintaining his position, given decades of yeoman service. He has been earning big bucks (no, not Forward’s top 100 level) and he has a highly recognizable identity in town.

While Aaron has been diligent in carrying out the organization’s mission, he has been equally woeful in reading the current tea leaves in his pot. He also never carved out time to consider and plan what else he might do (or be) in post-agency life. Aaron felt he would be “taken care of” by the agency. He readily acknowledged , “I hate golf and hey, I’ve given my entire life to (and have only worked for) this one field!” Aaron expects to live until he is 90.

So what comes next after feeling/being “plateaued”? Does his organization (or he, himself?) have a formal succession plan for “whenever”? Or, can Aaron re-engage at work? Can he learn 2014 social media strategies… or what those millennials want… or the complexities of market segmentation/competitor analysis … or six sigma? If he can, great … but what about his # 2, patiently waiting in the wings and expecting elevation in 2014?

Yesterday, Aaron was aghast at a non-renewal contract letter he opened. (Thank God it wasn’t a two line text). Seems the incoming chair decided on a “new direction”. (You see, Aaron’s chair, Jason, “came of age” corporately – with no staff loyalty, rampant M&A’s and skyrocketing health care and pensions cost.)

So what does Aaron do now? Protest? To whom? Sue? Whom? Take four aspirins to ward off a 2nd heart attack? OMG, where was that proactive and planful succession plan for the agency… and for Aaron?

(See a 2012 JCSA research study on 440 JCS execs, succession plans and data on CEO lack of preparedness for post-agency life. )

In the past two months, eJewish Philanthropy featured well-conceived/intentioned writings on the “leadership crisis” by highly regarded practitioners. This impending leadership crisis is caused, in part, by this decade’s aging boomer exodus… but it is equally caused by ineffective succession planning.

(It is uncanny how virtually all these articles were authored by men, save for the most recent fine July 8th article by Maxyne Finkelstein). In reflecting on these articles, David Edell framed it as “paralysis by analysis”. Why? What/where are the “calls to action”? Where are the “Big, Bold” ideas that can make a demonstrable difference?

(Parenthetically, why do we see so many cyclical waves of analyses and “calls to action” on leadership challenges in this field? One reason is abrupt high profile departures with no apparent planned succession. (Case in point in 2012 with two untimely departures at prominent international agencies.) When I was “parachuted” into the JCS field in 1995 to create the 1st Mandel EDP, what I did first was to research major reports/white papers on leadership crises. These “clarion call” documents, written in the 70’s and assuredly much earlier, all clanged the same alarm bell re search committee woes, scarcity of top candidates, no robust pipelines, etc. We see similar cyclical waves of analyses on the dearth of talented women in JCS. (I suspect our colleague Shifra Broznick has seen it all.)

In short, more than writing and pontificating needs to be done. We need to be dead serious about proactive, well-conceived succession planning. We need to not only honor long-tenured, valued service but we must help facilitate smooth transitions for the CEO “servants”. Towards that end, a three day workshop has been designed in October for CEOs across all JCS fields. It is targeted to those “considering, approaching or in the process of” transitioning to post-agency life.

Here are five recommendations for better succession planning in Jewish Communal Service:

  • Create a $1 million foundation consortia (a very modest Birthright or PEJE) to provide funding to address these challenges head on. There should be one “lead” funder. Too often, we hear “this is not in my sweet spot of Jewish funding”. Well, is not effective leadership transitions and succession planning an excellent way to increase donor ROI? Funds can be allocated to workshop attendance, more “applied” succession planning research (e.g. lay chair survey comparable to CEO perspectives on succession planning, a survey of # 2’s and leadership perspectives and expectations)
  • Make this challenge a higher priority for the upcoming mid-July biannual assemblage of 25+ Jewish community “influentials”. Take action and not more studies. It has all been written. In 2013/14 generate, viable short and long term action steps… not just aspirational statements.
  • Create more transparent, trusting relationships between board chairs and incumbent CEOs. The goal is proactive planning for the organization’s and the CEO’s future. (ACHARAI in Baltimore does exemplary work in this realm)
  • Affirmatively create a less-siloed, less territorial and a more collaborative JCS field. “Best practices” and resources need be better shared across all fields and senior level workshops accessible not just to members of one guild in the field.
  • Offer as an option, “non-work” related mini-sabbaticals so a 60 year old exec can carve out two months of his/her “own” time to explore “Encore Careers”, etc in 2013/4. The objective is to have a more practical, realistic and emotionally prepared exec able to step smoothly in 2018 into post-agency life.

Dr. Steven J. Noble is Managing Director of Noble Consulting Associates , Adjunct Professor of Leadership to MBAs at Boston University and Lead Academic Consultant to “Corner Office” (CEO interview column by Adam Bryant, The New York Times.)