Successful Succession Planning Begins with Building Your Bench Strength

More often than not, nonprofit board members think about succession planning only when it has already become transition planning—the organization’s chief executive has announced that she is departing or retiring and the board is in a state of panic. Given enough lead time (18-24 months) the board has time to engage in “departure defined” succession planning, but I want to make the point here that boards of successful organizations don’t view succession planning as a periodic event or a unique set of activities to be completed from time to time—they see succession planning as an opportunity to build organizational capacity, develop leadership, and be ready for whatever comes their way.

It may sound like I’m confusing leadership development with succession planning, but I’m not. In most nonprofit settings, leadership development takes the form of building the leadership skills of an individual (often through formal programs, workshops, Outward Bound experiences, etc.). By way of contrast, TransitionGuides consultant, Tom Wolfred, calls this form of ongoing succession planning “strategic leader development” and defines it this way:

“An ongoing practice based on defining an agency’s vision, identifying the leadership and managerial skills necessary to carry out that vision, and recruiting and maintaining talented individuals who have or who can develop those skills.” (from the Annie E. Casey Foundation monograph, “Building Leaderful Organizations”)

Organizations that perform at the highest level are rarely built upon the shoulders of a single leader—they have leaders throughout the organization who are fostering leadership in others and getting the best out of their departments and their teams. They have “bench strength” that allows members of the team to cover for each other, bolster their shared performance, and take on organizational leadership when called upon.

Nonprofit board members may be tempted to leave this kind of “strategic leader development” to the chief executive, but I think that is a mistake. Boards of directors have too much at stake to simply hope a formal leadership development program is in place and being pursued. More than simply assuring there will be someone ready to step-in if there is a sudden absence by the chief executive, nonprofit boards should share a commitment to building the strengths of their staff leadership teams.

I encourage boards of directors to ask these kinds of questions of themselves and of their chief executives:

  • Do we have the depth and breadth of leadership to manage through a crisis without our current chief executive at the helm?
  • Does our chief executive have a formal plan in place for building the capacity of the staff leadership team—a plan built upon a thorough assessment of their strengths and weaknesses?
  • How much of our staff training budget is devoted to team and leadership development, and is it sufficient?
  • What can we do to support our chief executive in implementing a formal plan for ongoing team and leadership development?
  • As a board, how can we model “strategic leader development” in our own governance model?

Pose these questions to your board and see where the conversation takes you. Some may want to stop at the first question and focus on developing an emergency succession plan, but I encourage you to push beyond that to a discussion about building the leadership capacity of the entire organization.

In addition to the obvious benefit of protecting the organization in the event of the loss or absence of the chief executive, when you build the strength of the leadership team, you build the capacity of the organization to weather any storm and excel in its achievement of the mission.

This blog post was authored by Jeff Wahlstrom and is an example of the kind of advice provided by the Starboard Leadership Consulting team. For more blog posts like this, or to learn more about Starboard, please visit our website: You’ll also find a contact form there which you can use to begin the conversation with our consultants.