Steve Ballmer rocked the tech world earlier this year when he announced his upcoming retirement. Why was that so shocking (other than Microsoft's being the 800-pound gorilla in that industry)? The news instantly generated more questions than answers, mainly because there wasn't a clear successor. People within Microsoft, those who do business with Microsoft, and manufacturers who rely on their Microsoft products were all wondering, "What's next?" That kind of upheaval is tough to overcome, as evidenced by the continuing dialogue in the media around Microsoft's future.
If you've ever been part of a nonprofit that goes through an abrupt leadership change, you've experienced a version of this upheaval. In the nonprofit world success is tied to relationships and trust. Both take a hit when the leader leaves and there's no clear successor or plan for succession. On the other hand, if there's a plan in place and someone is ready to step in, or there's a defined path to finding the next leader, you've answered many of the questions that supporters, partners, board, and even staff may have about the changes.
Before you work out the details of a succession plan for your organization, it's important that you get the board and leadership to agree on the need for the plan. It should be an organizational decision that is presented in writing, approved formally by the board, and reviewed regularly to ensure the plan remains relevant.
For larger organizations, the ideal situation often is to have one or more internal candidates who can be groomed to take on the top job. Just because a plan is in place, however, doesn't mean that the individual(s) receiving additional training and preparation are "automatic" to get a promotion; that point should be made clear to all. This concern should not be an impediment to developing a plan with an internal candidate and then doing everything possible to prepare that person to take on more responsibility.
The situation with most nonprofits, however, is that they don't have enough "bench strength" to have internal candidates. In this situation, it's even more important to have a written succession plan. In fact, the plan should address two distinct possibilities—what would be done if there were an immediate loss of the leader, and what is the long-term plan as a result of an anticipated departure (e.g., retirement). Call the first option the "Lottery Scenario," where the leader leaves the organization abruptly. In this situation, is there someone (a staff member, board member, volunteer) who could take over on an interim basis? If not, there are organizations and individuals that provide interim leader services for a price. In either of these cases, the solution is temporary, but it can ensure that operations are maintained until a longer-term solution can be arranged.
The longer-term solution also addresses the second possibility, a leader's planned departure. In this situation, the succession plan may call for a formal executive search for the next leader. This process will take time (and probably some expense), but it allows the organization time to go through a thoughtful and deliberative process. That is, the organization should step back and evaluate what traits, experience, and skills are needed to move the organization in the direction the board has determined. If done properly, the search also will cast a large enough net to ensure that the candidates identified have the ability to lead the organization for years to come.
A well-done succession plan accomplishes more than one goal. Certainly it lays out a clear path to replacing lost leadership. It also sends a message to constituents—the organization is in it for the long haul—even beyond the tenure of current leadership. The nonprofit has thought through what to do when it's time for leadership to change and wants those associated with the organization to know that they are doing everything in their power to ensure that the valuable services provided continue into the future.
Bill Hoffman, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
© 2013, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
Bill Hoffman has more than 30 years' expertise in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, having worked at all levels of nonprofit organizations, including serving as chief executive of a $6 million education foundation for 9 years. He and his firm have written and presented on topics ranging from board development to community and volunteer engagement, organizational development and performance, and best practices in national, regional, and state publications and symposia.