Succession planning is a topic that is off-limits in some organizations. It raises the spectre of difficult conversations and walking on eggshells. In other organizations the topic verboten. Such thinking is needless and, I would suggest is actually irresponsible. Given what’s at stake in a leadership change, it is quite literally mission critical for boards and CEOs to have open and regular conversations about executive transition planning.
In 2012, a year after I joined Propellus as CEO, we made the decision to pursue accreditation in the Imagine Canada Standards Program. As an organization dedicated to strengthening the management and governance practices of some 500 member organizations we believed it was important for us to demonstrate leadership in strengthening our own organization.
One of the standards is a requirement for succession planning. Notwithstanding a strong policy framework and three leadership transitions in the past seven years, we lacked a succession planning policy. In fact, we lacked any formal or informal process for talking about succession or planning for succession.
Having just successfully and smoothly transitioned out of the CEO role, here is some insight into how to make succession planning easy.
What is Succession Planning, Really?
Understand the succession planning work is ultimately risk management. It’s simply the job of a Board and a CEO to address the issue. Here’s the reality: by choice or by chance, no one stays in a job forever. Whether a CEO has been in place for one year or thirty years, the Board and the CEO have a responsibility to be plan for an executive leadership transition.
Succession planning does not mean that the Board asks the CEO when he or she is leaving or planning to retire. When a Board addresses succession planning it does not mean that the Board is unhappy with any aspect of the CEO’s performance. When a CEO addresses succession planning it does not mean that he or she has one foot out the door or lacks full commitment.
As in conflict management, boards and CEOs need to remember it’s about the issue not the people. By making the task of succession planning as routine as budget approvals, AGMs and fundraising events, it lowers the fear and apprehensions.
Where to Start
I found two particularly helpful resources as I researched how to approach succession planning:
- Building Leaderful Organizations: Succession Planning for Non-profits by the Annie E. Casey Foundation
- Managing a Leadership Transition by Executive Transitions: A Program of Compass Point Nonprofit Services
What these resources reveal is that developing a succession plan is more than the CEO writing something up and presenting it to the Board or a sub-committee for approval. It is an opportunity to have thoughtful and forward looking conversations about what competencies and expertise the CEO of your organization will need. How can a board be expected to hire a CEO if they don’t understand what’s actually required to lead and manage the organization?
We Wrote a Succession Plan, Now What?
One of the great strengths of the Imagine Canada Standards Program is that it doesn’t just ask for policies, it seeks to understand how your organization lives those policies, how you act on them and use them.
The key to keeping all the succession planning work moving is for the Board and CEO to review the plan at least once a year. This provides the CEO the opportunity to provide updates on internal development (if any) and changes to the organization’s work or strategic context which may affect what’s required in a leadership transition. Remember – a CEO departure can be unexpected and the Board needs to be ready in such an event. The annual review also provides the Board the opportunity to check its own state of readiness. Do they have new members that don’t know their roles and responsibilities? Are they aware of the talent being developed internally?
At the most basic level, an annual review means the Board and CEO are actively engaged in the risk management practice of succession planning.
By making succession planning a priority, boards and CEOs can work to ensure organizational stability.
About the Author
As the former CEO of Propellus, Jamie Niessen led the volunteer centre through the acquisition of a centre for nonprofit management. Previously he worked as Manager of Community Investment for TransCanada Corporation, as a marketing director for a Calgary law firm, and as a TV and interactive media producer at The Banff Centre. Jaimie recently completed his Executive MBA from Cornell/Queens University.
Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.