Every organization experiences leadership change. But these days, the nonprofit sector is experiencing a big demographic shift. Which is why it's essential for all nonprofits to start planning for the kind of thoughtful leadership transitions —including those resulting from both expected and sudden departures — any organization needs to survive and thrive.
According to the 2017 BoardSource report Leading With Intent, only 27 percent of nonprofits have a formal succession plan in place. That's unfortunate, because having such a plan in place can help any organization overcome the challenges and bumps in the road that almost always pop up in the wake of a leadership transition.
In the past, the process was commonly referred to "succession planning." However, that term often refers to identifying a successor for a specific leader and, in our view, has outgrown its usefulness. It's more helpful, instead, to think about the work of preparing for and managing leadership change as "intentional pathway planning," a more expansive term that serves as a reminder that leadership change involves much more than thinking about a single role or person; it's a holistic approach and lens that should be applied to every step of the hiring and onboarding process.
While every organization’s circumstances are different (involving things like leadership configuration, organizational goals, skills gaps, etc.), all nonprofits would be well-served to take a proactive approach to building a strong leadership pipeline, developing internal talent for higher-level roles, and making themselves aware of specific knowledge and/or diversity gaps that need to be addressed.
Tips for successful intentional pathway planning include:
Consider the big picture. A critical first step in intentional pathway planning is to understand your organization's leadership needs and mission-focused objectives. What are you trying to do? What type of talent will you need to get there? What are your organization’s knowledge gaps, and how can they be filled?
Plan and train. To ensure there's a robust pipeline of talent available to take advantage of future leadership opportunities, you need to proactively take steps to support talent. Provide employees with ample training and development opportunities — as well as continual mentoring and coaching — to help them learn, grow, and thrive. Check in with individual employees about their goals and aspirations, and then tailor development plans for them as appropriate. To ensure you have a deep bench of future leaders, allow staff at various levels to flex their leadership skills — and assume additional responsibilities. Such an approach is just as beneficial for the organization as it is for individuals on the receiving end of these training opportunities and can be pitched to job candidates as an organizational value proposition.
Look internally first. There are significant benefits to promoting from within, including capturing institutional knowledge, boosting team morale, and increasing employee engagement and retention. It's also less expensive and time-consuming to promote from within.
Know when to look externally. Be mindful about your talent needs and recognize that you might not have the skill sets, experience, diversity, or other key attributes needed to fill certain roles in the organization — in other words, there may be valid reasons to conduct an external search. It can be valuable to bring in outside perspectives and skills, especially if you are trying to address knowledge gaps on your internal team. And if your existing team lacks diversity, now would be a good time to do something about it. Just make sure you're ready to support people from diverse backgrounds as they are onboarded and begin to acculturate to your environment.
Use consistent systems. We are firm believers in the consistent use of performance management processes to capture personnel assessments and track professional development opportunities. Tools such as StrengthsFinder make it easier to assess the strengths (and weaknesses) of your leadership team, identify where knowledge gaps exist, and train people to fill those gaps.
Prioritize staff development. Healthy, sustainable organizations tend to excel at "growing" leaders and retaining their best talent. Make sure that someone on your leadership team is tasked with championing your pipeline development efforts and has the authority to embed it in the organization’s strategic priorities and budget. Recognize, too, that this needs to be an ongoing effort and remain a priority, even when other tasks and initiatives beckon.
Emphasize where DEI meets pathway planning. In the twenty-first century, it's imperative for organizations to embrace a culture of diversity with respect to race, gender, age, experience, perspective, and so forth. The first step in doing that is to identify and celebrate the various skills, competencies, perspectives, and backgrounds already present on your team. Then take steps to augment those skills and perspectives with external hires that enhance your diversity goals. Among other things, that means making sure a diverse group of candidates is considered for every promotion and leadership opportunity that arises.
Customize your plans. Recognize that your pathway planning needs to address future departures at multiple levels, including president/executive director, senior management roles (e.g., development director, major gifts officer, public affairs director, etc.) as well as board members. Because each of these positions requires different skills, experience, and so on, you'll need to develop specific plans to address each possible vacancy scenario.
Expect the unexpected. In a perfect scenario, your executive director will give the board plenty of notice about their planned departure date and will be willing to help select and train their successor. Unfortunately, departures of key leaders sometimes happen abruptly or unexpectedly (due to health issues, family emergencies, or other reasons). If your organization has a thoughtful plan in place, it should provide the kind of guidance an interim director will need during a difficult, tumultuous, and possibly emotional leadership change. If possible, take the time (with the help of the board) to develop an emergency transition plan that spells out the delegation of duties and authority (even temporarily) in the event of an unexpected transition or interruption in leadership.
Consider your organization's biggest challenges. Identify the current — and potential — challenges your organization faces (or is likely to face in the future). What type of leader will best be able to help the organization overcome these challenges, navigate obstacles, and meet its goals and objectives? What skills, qualities, and personality traits does this individual need to possess? What leadership qualities does your organization most need to bring about positive change?
Communicate wisely. Include a communications plan in your transition plans. While the circumstances of the transition will dictate the specific messages around it, you'll need to communicate any leadership change to internal and external audiences. Identify possible spokespeople, and make sure they're aware of — and comfortable with — their roles. Develop a list of key stakeholders that will need to be in the loop (e.g., board members, major donors, key staff, media, etc.). Recognize that you need to be thoughtful, clear, and concise with your messaging and its delivery.
Leadership transitions — especially when they're unexpected — can leave an organization vulnerable. It's essential to be prepared for a variety of scenarios and have plans in place to manage any change in leadership, regardless of the circumstance. Research by BoardSource shows that most organizations don't have a formal transition plan in place. Make sure your organization does.
Miecha Ranea Forbes is senior vice president of Culture, Inclusion & Strategic Advising at Koya Leadership Partners, an executive search and strategic advising firm guided by the belief that the right person at the right place can change the world.