Succession Planning: The Series


A few days ago I had the privilege of sitting down with a well-known and fairly well-respected community leader here in Houston. We discussed everything from her journey as a “transplant” to the founding of her very successful non-profit organization. Whizzing through the organizations 15 year history, I was amazed to hear what she’d managed to overcome and all that she’d contributed to the community.

But the otherwise light-hearted conversation quickly turned ugly once she started discussing the reality that the board would probably like her to retire soon. Not thinking, and having clearly let the caffeine go to my head, I asked if the board had already begun to process of finding a replacement. And I swear the look that flickered into her eyes made me think the ground would soon open up and I’d find myself in Dante’s hell standing next to Virgil himself….or perhaps that’s just what I wished would happen at that moment.

But after a few minutes of awkward silence (and a failed attempt to try to call my own cell-phone) she said that the board had only begun the process of *silence* implementing a “succession plan”; which she was “stuck” creating. The manner in which she spat those words out, and the vitriol with which said them, made me quickly change the subject to something about Ashton Kutcher. Not quite sure what it was but he’s a sure bet as there’s always something going on with him.

However, the experience did make me think about the attitude towards, and process involved with, creating a succession plan. Here you had a woman that dedicated a quarter of her life, her marriage and an entire life savings to this organization. She knew everything about it from the history of its founding to the day it got its first big grant. And with a staff of roughly six (half of whom had been there less than 3 years) it alarmed me to think about how much history, context, understanding and knowledge would be lost if something wasn’t put into place in time.

The Big Deal

Don’t get me wrong. I totally understand why she would have such a hard time coping with the reality that someone else would be running what she’d begun to see as her organization. The organization she had put her blood, sweat and 401K into.  Unlike many corporate founders, she wasn’t going to get a fat “going away present” to ease her pain either. In all honesty, I would be surprised if the organization had any type of retirement program set up at all.

But think about it. If it’s been 15 years, most funders and grantors likely associate the organization with her name. If there’s no plan in place how will it address a potential dip, or total loss, in some funding as a result of her departure? And once the Board starts looking for a replacement how are they going to ensure they gotten someone who fits if there isn’t some type of plan detailing the organization’s history, triumphs, travails, core values and mission? More than that, how can the Board expect the new ED to immediately jump in and know what contracts are in place, what obligations the organization has, what taxes and duties have been paid, etc? Not knowing all of this could be a pretty big deal right?

These issues (including other problems such as an exiting ED not wanting to let go, staff hesitation, Board being overwhelmed) can only be addressed if they are discussed and solutions are laid out. But with small staffs, and far more fires to put out than people, non-profits can tend to make succession an after thought if its a thought at all.

So I figured it would be a perfect topic to discuss in a series. Such a large and encompassing topic, I felt breaking it down into chunks might make discussion (and implementation) a bit easier for incumbent ED’s and Boards alike. So over the next few posts I plan to discuss things such as problems that can arise with succession planning, typical failures, the different stages involved and how the conversation might be brought up. But because so much about succession planning is learned through experience I’d love to hear how other people have addressed it, or failed to, lessons learned, things to look out for etc.

The key here is to understand that many ED’s fight with the reality of being transitioned out because they feel that that the organization will somehow fail without them. The new ED will totally shift directions. The Board might not realize how much the Founder did and let things slip through the cracks. Or the important details that make the organization what it is might get lost. But by not having something in place, a Founder almost assures this will be the case. To  ensure the dream becomes a legacy, and remains a success, a Founder must get a grip on the reality that they will have to leave someday.  And address it now rather than later.