Succession Planning Should Not Be Confused with Funeral Planning

When I first started consulting, I was asked on a couple of occasions to lead succession planning workshops for nonprofit leaders. Attendance at these sessions was disappointingly low, and rather than blame the low turn-out on the presenter, I suggested to the organizers that, “for some leaders, talking about succession planning can feel like planning your own funeral.” For some retiring chief executives, that’s probably not too far off the mark, but it really shouldn’t be that way.

If you are a chief executive who is actively engaged in succession planning, you are preparing the organization for what’s next. So rather than focusing on “the end” (funeral planning), succession planning should be about preparing for the future and what comes next for you, your team, and your organization. The best succession plans are all about continuing and furthering what you have underway while helping to ensure the success of the next leader.

I think the following questions are worth considering, whether you have a target date in mind for your departure or not:

  • What are you doing to ensure that your organization will be able to thrive, not just survive, without you?
  • What policies, procedures, and critical information were missing when you originally took the job, and are any of those items still on the “to do” list?
  • What organizational weaknesses or nagging staff issues do you really need to address before handing the organization off to someone else?
  • What are you doing to build your staff team and to prepare them for success and for whatever comes next?
  • What are you doing to build the capacity of your board to successfully manage a leadership transition and carry forward your shared vision?

The answers to these questions can become the basis of a “to do” list for your own succession planning efforts. The tasks you list all focus on the future, on the health of your organization, and on your legacy. Link them to a timeline and share your thoughts with your board chair. Rather than talking about “the end,” you’ll be talking together about a succession plan that is all about building a bright future for your organization.

This blog post, authored by Starboard consultant Jeff Wahlstrom, is an example of the kind of advice we provide at Starboard Leadership Consulting. To learn more about our work or read additional posts, go to, or you can contact us now to begin a conversation.