I Should But I Just Don’t Want To…

One of the most dreaded business shoulds is succession planning.  

Because a should means you have to. A should feels like some mythical exercise you don’t want to face (like planning who your husband should marry if something happens to you. It can be about that appealing).  

National statistics continue to indicate the number of nonprofit leaders leaving their executive roles in the next 5 years is growing yet only 27% of nonprofits report having a documented plan. I hesitate to even use the words, “documented succession plan” for fear of losing all readers right here.  

But stay with me – there’s relief offered here to take away this should to something more captivating and engaging. First, reject whatever idea you have of succession planning that makes you dread it because these ideas are the reasons we don’t do it.  

Why We Don’t Tackle Succession Planning:    
  1. Don’t want to think about it – depressing  
  2. Don’t want to be disrespectful to incumbent leaders – if we have a plan for life without them, we won’t need them anymore.  
  3. Don’t want to give my board the idea that I might leave or retire.  
  4. This is not the squeaky wheel – no one is demanding we get this done by Friday or this month. Therefore, procrastination is the answer especially since…
  5. … its’ not likely to be my problem.
  6. We have done it before and it’s here somewhere (though I doubt I could find it if you offered me $100)  
  7. We are not going to need it anytime soon and by then, whatever we do now won’t be relevant.    
  8. We have no idea WHO we would name as successor.

You recognize those delay tactics, don’t you? And this illustrates that we might have the wrong idea about what a succession plan needs to be. It can be as simple as an Essentials Plan which is quick and dirty… back to the mythical – what if leader wins the lottery?  

Sample Essentials Plan List:    
  1. Where the physical office keys
  2. Bank accounts  
  3. Office passwords
  4. Online file organizations  
  5. Paper file organization  
  6. Key contact info
  7. Access to calendar
  8. Deadlines for contract or grant renewals  

This is simple stuff. When I am going on a long trip, I leave notes on my countertop for my family like these and it takes no time at all. There is no need to procrastinate an Essentials Plan.

There are lots of samples out there that perpetuate a dreaded exercise of what a succession plan should be complete with templates. But what is more substantive and interesting is Transition Planning. Transition planning focuses on questions like:

  1. What would the impact be on the organization if leadership changes?  
  2. Who are the current most important three people to your organization’s success?  

A leadership consultant worked with my father on his small law firm’s sustainability – the consultant identified the single most valuable person as my father’s secretary who was also serving as the operations manager, payroll clerk, his eyes and ears on what needed attention in the building, including the team and client records. Instead of a succession plan, the consultant advised him to focus on a retention plan.

Transitions are Intriguing  
  1. Transition planning also has more engaging questions to think about instead of, WHO would we name? The identified who could be irrelevant by the time they are needed. Transition questions are broader and visionary:  
  2. Would we even fill the position? With one person, multiple people, or would we simply reorganize some of the work among others?
  3. What is the most likely externally imposed change facing us in the next 5 years?  
  4. If that happens, how would that change our current position and/or our operating budget? Are we planning financially for that?  
  5. Could our mission benefit from changing our business model?  

Would we use a professional transition firm? Executive recruiter? Interim Executive? Do we have the money, or do we need to start putting some aside?  

A transition planning question I really like is from Growing a Business, by Paul Hawken, founder, of the gardening company, Smith and Hawkins. He kept a question on his desk that asked, “If they hired a rock star in this field to come take my job, What would they do differently”? Most of us know that answer but honestly, we do not want to be the one who does it. It might involve some more business shoulds, but it can be intriguing to contemplate, and dare I say fun with the right facilitator and process.  

Shoulds are drudgery. Discussing future transitions is energizing and can build momentum. It is time to start the conversation.

Kathy Ridge is the Director of Interim Management Services at Armstrong McGuire who specializes in transition leadership. She create LevRidge Resources, a consulting firm serving nonprofits through financial, business and leadership transitions and merged with Armstrong McGuire in 2022. Through LevRidge Resources and Lift Connection, a network she created of credentialled interim executives and transition consultants, Kathy now recognized by her peers as a leader in the field of nonprofit executive transitions. Learn more about Kathy in her bio.

Check out our recent video on Interim Leadership featuring Senior Advisor Stephen Smith here.

Back to Blog

We want to hear from you!

Whether you’re ready to expand your organizational capacity and move forward with purpose, or just want to talk shop, we’d love to connect.

Get In Touch

From our hearts to your inbox.

Sign up for our newsletters.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.