So there was this nonprofit organization that shall remain nameless. It’s not GLAAD. Although I did make a similar mistake there. But I’ll get to that later. Back to the story.
The nonprofit had a longstanding CEO with extreme charisma. She was a great fundraiser and the clear face of the organization. A bigger-than-life presence.
The nonprofit thrived under her leadership. She was so revered that her board became, in essence, a rubber stamp. All the different constituents unanimously agreed she was doing an amazing job. Basically, she was irreplaceable.
But, it turns out, she made a huge mistake. A mistake that, ultimately, led to a severe financial crisis and even threatened the very existence of the nonprofit. It’s a mistake that any Executive Director or CEO can easily make.
And it was entirely avoidable. It starts with a simple question.
“So what happens if you get hit by a bus?”
Could there be a more depressing question at an executive board meeting?
I know the board doesn’t intend to put your death on the table, but it always feels so literal. Maybe it helps. I know I always left those executive sessions crossing the street more carefully.
Of course, what they’re really asking about is succession planning. Not sure why they don’t just call it that.
Regardless of a poor turn of phrase, the board is doing its job. I know you’d rather they spend time figuring out how to raise more money, but think of it like a will. No one wants to do one but a smart, forward thinking organization will push the CEO to get down to business and get something on paper. It’s part of their fiduciary responsibility after all. The continuity of your organization is paramount.
It’s one of those things on the list that’s “really important but never urgent.” Until it IS urgent. But by then, it’s usually an all-hands-on-deck crisis and something gets rushed into place because there’s no other choice.
Not the best way to get a good outcome.
Believe me, I know. From personal experience.
I HAD A SUCCESSION PLAN BUT I SCREWED IT UP
My plan was clear, simple and ultimately very short sighted. I hoped GLAAD would avoid a full national search. Frankly, boards don’t do them well. Also, there are a number of great reasons to promote an insider. Typically, internal candidates are not the bright shiny toy that a new external candidate is.
So I identified a successor before I left GLAAD. I groomed her. Took her on asks, gave her public speaking opportunities, gave her expense budget autonomy, engaged her in grant requests, put her in front of big donors and foundations. I felt I was doing a good job. The activities were subtle enough. Your Head of Programs would do some of these things. Perhaps not quite so often.
But when I announced I would step down, she wasn’t ready. I didn’t think so. The board didn’t think so. Neither did she. She wasn’t. Not yet.
The problem? I had a plan, but I took way to long to begin its implementation. I didn’t start the grooming process early enough.
(As a side note, the grooming process wasn’t entirely in vain. Several years later she would become the executive director of another LGBT organization. She has been in the saddle there for several years and is by nearly all measures doing a five star job. It’s just not at GLAAD.)
MY ADVICE ON SUCCESSION PLANNING
Succession planning is so important that I want to create a go-to resource on the topic. Forward this page to the members of your executive committee and your board chair. Make sure your Executive Director or CEO reads this.
It’s that important.
I hope they ignite you to just do it. And to cross the street carefully.
Here are my next two articles on succession planning, coming very soon:
- The 5 Keys To An Effective Succession Plan
- Promoting From Within: Building a Leadership Pipeline
I’m also going to add some external resources I hope you will find really helpful.
I can email you when these are ready. If you don’t already get my weekly emails, just enter your email address here so I know you want to hear from me. If you’re a nonprofit leader, I promise you it’ll be worth it.