Linking succession planning to the evaluation conversation

I have found that leadership succession planning within nonprofits is handled in much the same way that most families approach funeral planning or preparing their wills—in other words, they go to great lengths to avoid it. For board members, there is a fear that raising the subject might suggest to the chief executive that the board thinks it is time for him or her to leave. I think they also worry about what they might learn: “She’s planning to leave us!” For chief executives, succession planning means facing-up to the eventuality of leaving the organization—something they may not be ready to consider—and the fear that they might be offering the board the opening they’ve been hoping for and that they’ll soon be out of a job.

As board chair, I think it is your job to remove the anxiety that surrounds succession planning, get these conversations out in the open, and help everyone appreciate the value of planning ahead. It is in everyone’s best interest to avoid surprises that cause turmoil within the organization or force rushed decision-making, and it is in your best interest to avoid a conversation with the chief executive that begins with him or her saying, “Guess what…I’ve decided to move on.”

There are entire conferences, workshops and books written about succession planning, and consulting groups like ours wrap leadership transitions and succession planning into our practices. Rather than go into extensive detail here, however, let’s focus on how to build a discussion of succession planning into the annual evaluation process.

The evaluation process should include a point where you, the chief executive, and, ideally, your vice chair (or other officer) are in a room together with time to talk about the evaluation and related issues. In advance of that meeting, I suggest sending out an e-mail to the chief executive and your vice chair telling them what you hope to accomplish during the meeting and offer them an opportunity to add to your agenda. On the list should be “succession planning.” This helps to set the stage and moves this from the list of forbidden topics to being out in the open.

In addition to reviewing the evaluation and self-evaluation, talking about professional development, and considering the next year’s goals as part of your meeting, I hope that you also take time to ask, “How can we help you succeed?” Not only should you want to hear the answer, but this helps to reinforce a key message: “We want you to continue as our leader, and we want to know how we as board members can help.” This is certain to provide for some interesting discussion.

It then makes sense to say something along these lines:

I hope it is obvious from our conversation today and from the evaluation you have received that we respect your leadership and want to continue to be supportive of your good work in the year ahead and, hopefully, for years to come. I’m hoping that you continue to feel like your work with our organization is a good fit and that you see yourself as being with us for the long-term.

You may not need to say any more, especially if you sit quietly and let the chief executive speak next. The goal here is to set the stage for this conversation to happen in the most supportive way possible and then be ready to offer encouragement, show relief, or engage in a conversation about how best to manage a transition. Whatever the result, it is certain to be better than being surprised somewhere down the road.

While a conversation like the one I’ve described here can help reduce the “surprise factor” for one kind of leadership transition, less predictable are those emergency situations where the chief executive (or other key staff leadership) is incapacitated and unable to fulfill his or her job responsibilities. Without careful emergency planning, even the short-term loss of your chief executive due to accident or illness can leave the organization in turmoil and unable to function. That is why we encourage every organization with which I work to take the time to embark on some level of emergency succession planning. There are a variety of resources available to you on-line or through consultants in your own community.

As I suggested earlier, succession planning is not a simple matter, but that should not prevent you from making sure that essential conversations and planning processes take place. You owe it to the next board chair and to your organization.

For additional information, please contact Jeff Wahlstrom at (207) 992-4407 or send him an e-mail message at [email protected]