Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Leadership Succession (guest contributor)

Editor’s note: Dennis McMillian, President/CEO of The Foraker Group and Jim Maley, President/CEO of Alaska Children’s Services and a member of the Foraker Group Operations Board attended training on succession planning earlier this year. Dennis asked Jim to write his reflections.

Thousands of books have been written about “leadership.” Each of us has a favorite, be it Senge, Collins, Covey, or Ryan. At a recent workshop we attended in Oakland, a new type of leadership was explored – “The Leadership of Letting Go.”

CompassPoint and the Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored this two-day workshop entitled “Next Steps” for Executive Directors. Participation was limited to CEO’s who have been in their current position for ten years or more, or are founding CEO’s of their organization. Additionally, each has expressed the possibility that they will be leaving their positions within the next five years.

Change is often difficult, and when you are talking about a change in top leadership, even greater stress is generated. This is why succession planning is so critical for an organization. The presenters at CompassPoint identified three different types of succession planning — all focus on different aspects of change and all are important elements of corporate planning.

The first and most fundamental type of succession planning is Strategic Leader Development. Basically, the presenters define this as promoting training and delegation that results in a “leaderful” organization. In very basic terms, leaderful organizations are those that focus on spreading leadership throughout the organization in order to create agencies that are able to adapt and reinvent themselves. Beginning with the strategic plan, professional development should be analyzed and encouraged throughout the organization.

At Alaska Children’s Services, the Board of Directors recently included the following goal in their strategic plan: “Develop a professional strategic plan for all staff.” This includes identifying key competencies and skills that are essential for the successful functioning of all positions, identifying ways to gain these skills, e.g. training, academic classes, experiential learning, etc.; and then developing professional growth plans for all staff who wish to pursue such development.

The second element of succession planning identified by CompassPoint is referred to as Departure Defined Succession Planning, also known as CEO planned resignation. This action is defined as the thoughtful planning and activities to ensure organizational sustainability. The process gives attention to both the personal and professional issues of the departing CEO.

Unfortunately, for many organizations this process is limited to the activity of recruiting and hiring the new CEO, when in fact the presenters identify multiple elements of this process: CEO support and celebration, board leadership, planning for agency sustainability, stakeholder preparation, identifying future leadership needs, AND THEN recruiting and hiring the new CEO.

The third, and we believe the most critical component of succession planning is Emergency Succession Planning. What would happen at your organization if you were in an accident and were critically injured or killed? Who has keys to your office, who knows your computer passwords, who automatically takes over, who deals with all your appointments, who is authorized to speak on behalf of the agency? CompassPoint identifies nine critical components of emergency succession planning:

  • Identify critical CEO functions
  • Name a backup for each function
  • Develop a cross-training plan for backups
  • Name who would become acting CEO
  • Specify board’s monitoring and support role for the acting CEO
  • Outline the board process for activating the plan
  • Draft the communication plan
  • Set guidelines for addressing an absence that becomes permanent
  • Board adoption

When is the critical time to do succession planning? At Alaska Children’s Services it began after a number of board/CEO conversations and the mutual recognition that there would, in fact, be a change forthcoming. At The Foraker Group it has been said that succession planning should begin shortly after the arrival of the new CEO. Regardless of which premise you may support, the most important thing is don’t wait. It is up to the top leadership of the organization to initiate these conversations. Whether you intend to spend another year or 20 years in your position, you owe it to your organization to be prepared for your planned or unplanned departure.

And as CEO’s we must recognize that succession planning entails two final leadership challenges for us as we consider life after our job:

The leadership of preparing the way

The leadership of letting go