“When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal; you do not change your decision to get there.” –Zig Ziglar
Change in the executive leadership of a nonprofit organization is inevitable. Since it will likely happen a number of times in the life of any organization, the question isn’t whether it will happen. The question is when. And, a related question is how important is it for an organization – with 5 staff or 500 staff – to be prepared for this inevitability? In the 15 years that we’ve helped nonprofit organizations think about this topic it’s been an interesting journey. Some organizations easily see planning for leadership change as an investment in risk management. For other organizations it creates fear and a range of excuses such as “we’re too busy” and “we know of organizations that had plans and in spite of that it was chaotic anyway, so we’ll address it when it happens”. When the notice of a pending change is announced, every organization needs to respond; depending on the plans it has or doesn’t have in place, the response at the time will be different.
Succession planning is commonly thought of as putting a leadership development strategy in place to prepare one or more future leaders for key leadership positions. Emergency succession planning is commonly thought of as putting in place a strategy to fill a key leadership position during a short or long-term temporary absence. Executive transition planning and management is putting in place a strategy to manage a permanent change in a chief executive officer or executive position and could include interim leadership and conducting a search and selection process for the next leader. Succession planning, emergency succession planning and executive transition planning and management are qualitatively different and ultimately serve different purposes. Therefore, the choice of an organization to plan for one or all of them for key leadership positions depends on an organization’s beliefs about leadership development and its tolerance for risk and uncertainty. In some cases it might also depend on a mandate from funding sources or investors.
When it comes to emergency succession planning for the chief executive position, our experience tells us it’s a risk management tool every nonprofit organization cannot afford to be without. When an organization invests a little time to plan for an emergency it has the added value of making space to plan for a non-emergency change too. During a calm time and without pressure, when an organization can thoughtfully ask “what if” and select the best options that fit its culture, the response in an emergency is that much better. Think of it as insurance for the unexpected like talking on your cell phone and falling through a man hole in the street or tumbling into a fountain because you weren’t looking where you were going. While most organizations agree that having a strategic plan with a shared vision that charts an organization’s course for some period of time is essential, it’s curious that many organizations struggle to give emergency succession planning for executive leadership a similar level of priority. And, at a calm time, emergency succession planning is a lot easier!
We’ve been doing research and supporting nonprofit organizations and their leaders with leadership transitions since 2002. That was a time when founders and long-time executive leaders of nonprofit organizations began to reach 30 plus years in their positions and the reality of retirement loomed closer. Today executive transition management, a practice we helped to develop, is almost as common as strategic planning. A whole industry of interim leadership, emergency succession planning, succession planning, and search and selection for nonprofit organizations is thriving so there really is no reason not to take advantage of the available resources.
That’s why I was surprised when I was invited this summer to speak at an institute for nonprofit leaders on the topic of succession planning, and I was advised that they included the topic at each of the last three or four conferences. In a discovery conversation with the planning committee I got an outpouring of requests to cover every aspect of the topic as if it had never been covered before.
As I reflected on the committee’s conversation, I thought about the book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (1980), by William Bridges. Bridges explains, that the place between an ending and a beginning is a neutral zone. It’s a space that feels uncomfortable because we experience loss and with it our sense of knowing and stability. It also means an investment of time and lot of hard work. So often it’s easiest to avoid addressing the prospect of a leadership change until this organizational issue is right in front of us and we don’t have a choice.
And that’s when it hit me that it’s about transparency and connectivity that Judith E. Glaser, explores in her book Conversational Intelligence, How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Judith explains that when people are “resistant or skeptical they are either in a fear state or have apprehensions so they hang out to wait and see what others will do” and it prevents them from taking their own action. Transparency is the action of speaking openly and honestly about difficult issues so that we can start to see each other as people with similar concerns and needs. Connectivity is the action of relating to others in a caring and candid way, and drawing them in to accomplish something together. Transparency and connectivity in organizational conversations about succession planning will shift feeling threatened by the current reality of “we’re too busy” “we’re too small” or “it’s a wasted investment”. The interconnections between transparency and connectivity build trust that supports successful advanced planning conversations for a leadership change. These trusting conversations are worthwhile investments in the organization’s future as they assuage the fears and concerns that often underlie conversations about change and transition especially when they are unexpected.
Judith says that, “when you reach out to connect by paying full attention to what others are saying and even not saying, you activate oxytocin – the bonding hormone. And at the same time, you are activating trust networks” in the brain. These networks feel safe and enable trust to be built.” She explains further, “when we are threatened, our listening changes and we listen with “threatened” ears. We distort what we hear and selectively add fear-based interpretations and bad intent to what others are saying. Though it may not be true, this mindset makes it our truth. Oxytocin will make emergency succession planning feel less threatening and more like the opportunity that it is to plan for good endings and new beginnings that William Bridges speaks about.
Since one of the most important roles of any nonprofit organization board of directors is sustaining business continuity here are three steps to move emergency succession planning to the top of a board’s “to do” list. First, schedule a discovery conversation to make the issue more transparent and to begin to connect to what is on each board member’s mind about it to begin building common ground. Three effective discovery questions are: 1) in your experience what helps an organization successfully prepare for a future change in executive leadership? 2) What are the risks we could face without having a plan, and 3) what, in your experience, would an effective emergency succession plan include? This kind of discovery conversation makes the needs of the organization transparent to the group and produces an outline for the emergency succession plan that includes contributions from everyone. Second, appoint a task force – a temporary body – to take responsibility for drafting the emergency succession plan, building from the information gathered in the discovery conversations. Google “Emergency Succession Plans” for various examples of templates and toolkits to eliminate the guess work. Have the task force bring the draft plan back to the full board for further input and ultimately approval. Look for a few interested volunteers among board members and senior staff and consider reaching out to a local network of HR professionals who could contribute their time. Third, assign responsibility for the completed plan. We suggest you give the responsibility to a committee that can be standing ready or activated when the plan is needed. An emergency succession plan is like a good insurance policy. It’s there when you need it, providing a foundation for transparency and connectivity during an unsettling time.
Managance Consulting & Coaching is on a mission to ignite passion and energize opportunity in nonprofit work places. Denice Hinden, PhD, PCC, President and her team inspire leaders and teams to their next level of leadership and develop more trusting “we-centered” organizational cultures with transformational leadership development and engaging strategic thinking. Denice is Certified in Conversational Intelligence®. Judith E. Glaser is the founder and CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the Chairman of The Creating We Institute. We are honored to partner with Judith to bring you our 2017-2018 Leveling Up Leadership Blog.