Imagine this:  It’s your first few days at your new job.  So far, things are going well.  You are becoming familiar with the organization, you enjoy working with your colleagues, and you are excited about the type of impact you can make.  Life is good!  And then suddenly you receive an email.  The Executive Director is resigning effective immediately… Everything comes to a stop.

It sounds like the worst possible scenario for a nonprofit – an extreme example to prove the case for succession planning.  Funny enough, this has happened to me.  TWICE.  Both times, with brand new EDs, who unexpectedly had to face the difficult and personal decision to leave.  Both times, in small organizations, (one, with only a small handful of staff).  And both times, the organization’s staff felt the weight of the departure, and were left in stunned silence, thinking “now what?”

***

For many in our sector, “succession” is the word that must not be spoken.  Conversations about succession are expected to be awkward and uncomfortable, and especially for highly-bound and tightly-resourced nonprofits, it can trigger fears of uncertainty and crisis.  However, you can also argue that not having those awkward and uncomfortable conversations can lead to exactly what they fear.  While an organization’s staff and volunteers feel the impact, the shockwaves are felt by it’s external stakeholders too.

Now we’re all adults here, so we can’t force you to have conversations that you don’t want to have.  But we will try to gently encourage you to consider why having these conversations might be beneficial.  Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Make your strategy work! When setting the organization’s strategic directions, succession plans are critical.  If strategy aims to meet external needs with internal capacity, then it would be pretty important to know who the key leaders will be, what skills and capabilities they bring to the table, and what areas will need to be developed for the strategy to be viable.  Since we can’t predict the future, a long-term succession plan helps build a level of sustainability through leadership changes.
  • Keep the Ball Rolling. Especially for sudden and unexpected leaves, it is helpful to have micro-level planning in place.  This ensures that day-to-day leadership tasks can easily be taken up by staff and board members, interim and new leaders, and that operations and services can continue without any disruption.
  • Your Staff’s Sanity. Consistent leadership is important to your staff. Now I realize my personal story is unique:  I’m either weirdly unlucky, the harbinger of life-changing decisions, or an ED’s worst nightmare (why does everyone keep leaving me?!), but the point is still the same.  Good succession planning is crucial for setting staff expectations, and building a sense of stability and direction.  As long as there’s a plan, we’ll be alight!
  • Develop Your People. Often the first thing we think about when we talk about succession is people going out, and people coming in.  But succession is also concerned with retaining and developing your most important asset – your people!  It involves thinking about future needs, and putting staff on the path to achieving organizational goals.  Furthermore, while studies show that job satisfaction, engagement, and performance is enhanced when staff succession planning processes are in place, succession plans also counteract the high costs of employee turnover. 
  • Be reliable. In nonprofits, everything we do comes down to mission.  And the ability to pursue our mission requires the trust of clients, funders and strategic partners.  So, if we seek the trust of our external stakeholders, then we need to be committed to offering high-quality, consistent and predictable “customer service”, despite organizational shifts.  Succession planning can help us stay focused on external impact; while not having one can cause us to instead, focus inward.

Clearly there’s a case for the conversation about succession — and if we don’t talk about it, we can’t plan for it.  But the moral of the story is that it doesn’t have to be awkward or uncomfortable.  As you can see, there are many angles to broach this topic in ways that do not strike fear in the hearts of our leaders.

When you’re ready to have the discussion, just let us know.  PLC would be happy to help;)

Christina Sackeyfio is the Program Manager, Capacity Building at Peel Leadership Centre. She manages PLC’s Succession Consulting services, and is currently reaching out to community organizations seeking support in this area.  If you’re interested, get in touch – she loves to chat!  You can reach her at csackeyfio@peelleadershipcentre.org.  You can also learn more about this funded service at http://www.peelleadershipcentre.org/growingcapacity/succession-project/.

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