Going Deeper: Taking Succession Planning Beyond “Check the Box”

Depending on your age, many of you will recall learning to paint “by the numbers.”  The number tells you what color to use.  You have a picture with lines to guide what color goes where -- and voila, we’re artists in just a few minutes!   

As we know, there is more to art than filling in boxes by the numbers.  Succession planning for nonprofits is similar.  Ten years ago most nonprofit executives avoided succession planning like it was death.  It was awkward and uncomfortable, so why deal with it?

Fortunately, funders, state and national associations, and others have raised awareness and appreciation about the importance of succession planning.  So, we talk about it more   If you trust various studies, some organizations actually do succession planning and produce written emergency back-up plans – and even a succession policy or plan.

Unfortunately, a lot of the attention so far is like painting by the numbers.  A creative executive or board member goes on the web or attends a workshop and gets a couple of templates for completing a succession plan.  These templates get adapted to the organization, approved by the board, and the funder or stakeholder requirement is filled and the box checked.

This is still progress.  And it provides the backdrop for leaders to take succession planning much deeper and use it as a powerful – and for some a transformational – tool for organizational change.

How do you do that?  By completing  a more in-depth unpacking of the job of the chief executive and key managers and looking at core functions needed to sustain success. How much back-up do we have for these functions?  What cross training or hiring priorities does this review reveal?  How will this advance our commitment to internal leader development and advancing a leader development culture?

Succession planning is leveraged further when combined with a sustainability review. You can best plan for leadership continuity in the context of understanding current strengths and challenges and with a defined sense of how an organization’s strategic direction and business model will evolve over the next five or more years.

Learn how to dig deeper to  succession planning by being part of “Executive Transitions and Deepening the Bench” at the Center’s Statewide Conference   

Tom Adams is president of TransitionGuides and has assisted more than 400 nonprofits with succession planning. 

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