Succession Planning – 3 Definitions and Approaches

The phone call is often from a board member, and it usually begins this way: “We need help with succession planning.” However, what they actually want and how they have come to define “succession planning” usually takes some work to uncover.

It could be they need help in developing a predictable succession of board officers. It could be that the executive director has just announced her retirement plans and they aren’t sure how to prepare the organization. Or it could be they’ve experienced a sudden departure of a key staff member and are trying to recover and launch a search.

The fact is that succession planning can take different shapes, but the overall goal should be the same:

To ensure an orderly and successful transition of leadership while still advancing the organizations’ mission and strategic priorities.

Organizations that have engaged in succession planning rarely ask, “What do we do now?” Instead, when faced with a leadership transition, they say, “We have a plan.”

In the Annie E. Casey Foundation monograph, “Building Leaderful Organizations,” Tom Wolfred offers three different ways in which organizations engage in succession planning:

  • strategic leader development
  • emergency succession planning
  • departure-defined succession planning

These definitions, developed by transition consultants at CompassPoint and TransisitionGuides, are enormously helpful in sorting-out the different ways in which organizations can approach succession planning.

Strategic leader development is defined by Wolfred as, “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.” The key word in that definition is “ongoing.” So rather than planning in anticipation of a specific leadership departure, there is an organizational commitment to ensuring the right staff and the right volunteers are in place (with the essential skill-sets) to successfully advance towards the organizational vision and be ready for any opportunity or eventuality.

Emergency succession planning is just like it sounds. Here the organization is putting in place plans and defining roles and responsibilities in order to ensure the organization can continue to operate without disruption in the event of a sudden, unplanned absence or the departure of a key leader or administrator. The need to engage in emergency succession planning is often introduced with the sobering question, “What happens if our executive director is hit by a bus?” My preference is to ask board members, “If your executive director won the lottery and decided to leave for Paris in the morning, would you be ready to keep the organization running?”

Departure-defined succession planning happens when a leader announces he or she plans to leave or retire, for example, in 18-24 months. Here the board takes an active role in preparing the organization for a leadership transition—agreeing upon organizational priorities, building board and staff capacity, and taking the essential steps to prepare the organization for an executive search that will attract the very best candidates.

At Starboard Leadership Consulting, we regularly work with our Maine clients to develop succession plans and manage leadership transitions. If you want to learn more, you’ll find a number of helpful suggestions in the blog section of our website:, or you can click here to get in touch with a member of our consulting team.