Dispatch from the Succession Planning Trenches

  • By Vivien Hoexter
  • Published June 5, 2016
  • Tagged

The turnover of nonprofit leaders as the baby boomers retire is an imminent reality for many organizations. Never before has there been such a large generational change in CEOs and executive directors. Many of these leaders have been in their roles for more than 10 years. Some have led their organizations for more than 20 years.
Some Organizations Create Offensive Strategies
In my experience, approaches to succession planning vary greatly. One current client, a $25 million organization in the health space, is doing it right. The current CEO has been in her role for 25 years. She is not retiring until the end of 2016, giving her colleagues time to plan for the change. (The process began several months ago.)
I am helping to refresh their strategic plan, to ensure that the current direction is still the preferred one. As we do this, we are talking to key stakeholders about the skills and qualities the new CEO will need. This exercise is a preface to creating a job description for the new leader and a succession road map, with milestones like hiring a search firm.
Even if there is an internal candidate being groomed to take over the CEO role, the board and staff should complete this exercise. And almost always, it is beneficial to look at external as well as internal candidates.
My client’s approach does not guarantee that the next CEO will triumph. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of leaders who follow founders or long-serving CEOs and do not last long in their new roles. But it does greatly reduce the likelihood of a poor fit, which can be wrenching for an organization already reeling from the loss of its leader.
Some Wait for the Bullets to Rain Down
The approach described is in stark contrast to that taken by another organization – not a client – where the CEO had been in his role for more than 15 years. It seems that the organization was looking to clone him, with disastrous results. The new leader lasted three years, during which time the organization spiraled into deficit spending and poor morale. When a new CEO was finally chosen, it took her more than two years to right the ship – time when she could have been innovating and planning for the future.
Proactivity Means More Battles Won
There are more instances like that than there should be. It is not easy to plan for the retirement of a much-loved leader. But it is incumbent on the board to make those plans and then implement them. The future of your organization depends on it!
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