Where's My Next Leader?

| by Leslie Starsoneck

“Nonprofits not tapping staff for senior posts” is the title of a recent blog post by Philanthropy North Carolina’s Todd Cohen.  It leads with the statement “Succession planning consistently is the top organizational concern of nonprofit boards and CEOs, yet nonprofit leaders are not promoting current staff to fill senior positions, a new study says.” 

Promoting from within is a valuable strategy for a comprehensive succession plan, so why is it only used at half the rate found in the for profit world?

Promoting from within requires that leadership development be highly valued and a core competency in the organization.  Too often, promoting from within is part of crisis management, or, a recruitment strategy that heavily weights on-the-job training and commitment to the mission of the organization against a candid assessment of leadership skills.

Do these sound familiar to you?

  • “What about Joe for Program Director?  He has great rapport with clients, and staff seem to like him a lot and he’s dependable.”
  • “Juanita might take it.  She doesn’t have to work, you know.”
  • “Sara was acting director last year.  Maybe she’d be willing to do it again if we gave her a small increase?”

Comprehensive succession planning should involve a number of strategies, including ongoing leadership development, and account for at least three very different scenarios.

1.  The Planned Departure

Notice has been given by the CEO of an impending retirement and a neat timeline for searching for a leadership replacement is typically offered and gratefully accepted. Revisiting and modifying as necessary the role of the new leader is a key activity under this scenario and continuing to thrive and pursue strategic plan goals should occur.

2.  Time for a Change

A much more common and significantly messier situation where either the CEO or the Board of Directors envision a different direction and the decision by the board or by the CEO to leave the organization comes with little warning.  Chaos can ensue when plans aren’t made for this scenario, and, can make it much harder to draw top talent who must first deal with the chaos – which may include departing staff, low staff morale, a precarious financial situation, and/or reduced support from the community due to the organization’s lack of stability.

3.  The Crisis (also known as the “what if our CEO gets hit by a bus” plan)      

This scenario calls for a plan for who can step in immediately to make sure the organization continues to operate.  This person needs additional support       from the board and access to key organizational information (documents, passwords, ideally a working guide for taking over in an emergency).  No one       expects an organization to necessarily thrive under this scenario but keeping things running and donors, clients and staff reassured is a key expectation. 

How can you minimize the chaos or avoid it altogether?  Identifying and developing key members of your current staff for possible future leadership roles is a critical part of your organization’s succession planning responsibility for significant transitions – planned or unplanned.  If Armstrong McGuire can help you with your succession planning, let us know. 

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