Recently, I spoke with a colleague at one of Chicago’s leading foundations. She mentioned a conversation floating around the office on whether the Foundation should fund organizations with Interim Executive Directors. We discussed another Chicago foundation that has policies excluding funding for organizations in leadership transitions. Clearly, succession planning is key to a healthy organization, but how do you start the conversation?
Talking about succession planning can be difficult. There are so many pitfalls and implications that could be read into starting this dialogue. The key is to be clear and distinct. This is neither the opportunity to ask about a rumor floating around the office nor a discussion about yours or a colleague’s pending departure. Rather it is the creation of a general leadership transition plan.
Creating an emergency succession plan is a good starting point. Organizations need a back-up plan covering an emergency absence of a staff or volunteer leader. Creating this plan will ensure mission work continues with minimal disruption during transition.
Perhaps there was a staff member that took an extended leave recently, or an ill board member unable to participate for multiple meetings. Talking about how the transition could be improved can be the initial stage of creating an emergency succession plan. Once the plan is created, the organization may implement it when the staff member or leadership volunteer takes a planned personal leave.
Finding the right time to talk about succession planning reminds me of the Chinese proverb on planting a tree. “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Few organizations have the capacity to have this discussion during the transition itself. Rather, leaders should take notes and identify topics for an upcoming discussion. Short of developing a plan while transition is occurring, organizations should not wait for a “right” time to talk about succession planning.
Begin the discussion at the board level, then use your avenues of communication to expand the dialogue throughout the organization. How to develop it and what it should cover will be the subject of subsequent blog entries.