Sign From Above: What if Your CEO Took a Cue from Benedict?

Even with the unexpected resignation of its spiritual leader, the Catholic Church has a system in place to swiftly install the next pontiff. What can associations learn from it?

What if your organization’s CEO announced today that she was no longer able to effectively execute the duties of her position and would resign at the end of the month? How would your organization handle the news, and would you know what steps to take next?

A succession plan helps the organization follow a well-thought-out plan created in advance of a leadership crisis, when clearer minds are likely to prevail.

That’s pretty much what happened this week to the Catholic Church and its more than 1 billion members.

Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world Monday when he announced that he would be stepping down from the papacy at the end of the month due to his deteriorating health, but his decision is unlikely to significantly disrupt the Church’s operations. When the time comes—probably next month, according to news reports—Catholic leaders from around the globe will gather in Rome to begin the centuries-old process of selecting a new spiritual leader. Past papal elections, at least in the modern era, suggest that the transition will be seamless.

You probably don’t employ a College of Cardinals to select your organization’s next leader, but there is something to be learned from the Catholic Church’s “succession plan,” say Bob Van Hook and Jackie Eder-Van Hook, cofounders of Transition Management Consulting, Inc. Here’s what they told Associations Now after news of the pope’s departure broke this week:

It would seem that the Catholic Church has succession planning figured out, given they’ve had a set process in place for centuries that seems to be working.

Jackie Eder-Van Hook: The Catholic Church has done a good job of creating a succession strategy. The Cardinals have been developed over the course their careers, and the Vatican has a discernment process that helps identify those who would be most capable of serving as pope. Of course, the system is not a flawless process, as there is a paucity of diversity among the candidates.

What are the benefits of having a succession plan in place, especially in an instance where a vacancy happens suddenly or unexpectedly?

JEV: Most associations do not have the capacity to develop hundreds of “cardinals.” A succession plan helps the organization follow a well-thought-out plan created in advance of a leadership crisis, when clearer minds are likely to prevail. Having a plan in place allays the concerns of staff, members, vendors, and other stakeholders.

When an association doesn’t have a succession plan, what might it face if a sudden vacancy occurs?

JEV: Selecting an executive leader is one of the most important responsibilities of a board of directors. When a board is faced with a leadership vacancy and they do not have a plan in place, they must make a lot of decisions in the midst of a crisis. Most boards lack experience hiring nonprofit executives and find themselves at a loss for what to do. Without effective interim leadership, momentum in achieving the mission may be lost, and staff, members, and stakeholders may feel adrift.

What are the first steps a group should take when faced with a sudden vacancy?

Bob Van Hook: Take a deep breath. While it might be a crisis of planning, it is not a crisis. An executive search may take four to seven months. The first question is how to maintain the association’s momentum during the vacancy and provide for interim management. This can give the association space for determining how well the organization is operating and where it wants to go in the future, and what type of leader they will need.

How does a group design a succession plan that addresses sudden vacancies?

BV: A good succession plan objectively considers current organizational realities, such as finances, staffing, priorities, governance, and expected duration of vacancy. This helps determine whether the organization is ready to conduct the search for a long-term successor and establishes the strategy for that search. Succession planning should be a key responsibility for any board of directors and is no less important than developing a strategic plan. It is a lot like estate planning—no one likes to do it, but if you don’t, the consequences are serious for those left behind in the organization.

(Poland Presidential Office)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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