Start Your CEO Succession Planning with an Easy Conversation

While most nonprofit board members appreciate that one of their core responsibilities is, as they often put it, to “hire and fire” the chief executive, they usually work very hard to avoid doing either. Leadership transitions can be traumatic moments for organizations, especially if they aren’t carefully planned. Yet, when I ask board members if they’ve engaged their chief executive in a succession planning conversation the answer is usually “no.”

Avoiding or putting-off the topic will not make it go away. Your nonprofit’s chief executive will be leaving your organization at some date in the future—perhaps not while you are on the board, but it could happen sooner than you think. Organizations and boards that successfully weather leadership transitions do so because they and their leaders know that a smooth transition takes time and careful planning.

Succession planning can be as simple or as extensive as you want to make it, and you’ll find a great list of potential resources on the MANP website to guide you in developing a plan. However, if the thought of a formal planning process is too intimidating or unrealistic, begin with a simple conversation that is woven into the chief executive’s annual evaluation process. By making this an annual conversation, you greatly increase the likelihood that the chief executive’s decision to leave or retire will not come as a surprise and will allow you the time needed to plan and manage a successful transition.

With the assumption that the evaluation process will include a face-to-face meeting between one or more board officers and your chief executive, I suggest the board member who is going to lead the meeting set the stage by sending an email to the chief executive describing what you hope to accomplish during the meeting. Among those items should be “succession planning.” Get the topic out in the open and make sure he or she has time to think about it too.

The goal here is to reduce the risk of being surprised and finding yourself with a much shorter time horizon than you might like. A 12-18 month “heads-up” works for most organizations, and that is a message you should communicate to the chief executive.

Once the discussion of the evaluation has concluded, consider saying something along these lines: “I hope it is obvious from our conversation today that we respect your leadership and want to be able to count on the same for years to come. With said, I need to check-in to make sure you still see yourself being with us for several more years.”

You may not need to say any more, especially if you sit quietly and let the chief executive speak. The goal here is to set the stage for this conversation and then be ready to offer encouragement, show relief, or engage in a conversation about how best to manage the transition ahead.

While comprehensive succession planning (including emergency succession planning) should be on every board’s “to do” list, it is perfectly understandable why it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of that list. Don’t, however, miss the opportunity to make it a standard practice to talk about leadership succession during your chief executive’s annual review. It will get easier every time you do it, and along the way you are laying the groundwork for a smooth and successful leadership transition at some point in your organization’s future.

This post, written by Jeff Wahlstrom, originally appeared on the NonprofitMaine Blog on October 12, 2016. For more advice on leadership transitions, visit the Starboard Leadership Consulting website:, or get in touch with our consulting team now using our contact form. We look forward to hearing from you.