As difficult as it can be, succession planning can help an organization stay afloat during unsure times. The National Gay Pilots Association learned this after a plane crash claimed the life of its executive director.
Planning for the unexpected departure of an executive director or CEO is not something that many associations do well. Just 33 percent of the organizations surveyed for ASAE’s 2012 Benchmarking in Association Management report said they have a formal succession plan in place—and that number shrinks to less than 25 percent for organizations with five or fewer employees.
The nature of our business, something like this can happen to anyone, and this was a real eye-opener for us.
The National Gay Pilots Association, which just two years ago made the move from a social organization to a fully functional association, didn’t have a succession plan in place when its executive director, Steven Moore, was killed in a plane crash in Boulder, Colorado, last month. NGPA was fortunate in one respect: Moore, who had announced earlier this year that he planned to step down from his leadership role, was already helping to train his successor.
“To our members, it probably appeared on the surface that we had a business-contingency plan or something along those lines, but in reality, we didn’t,” said David Pettet, who was elected to become NGPA’s next executive director in September. “The nature of our business, something like this can happen to anyone, and this was a real eye-opener for us. As a result, we understand now the importance of having one, and we’ve already begun to put that plan into motion.”
NGPA maintains a majority of its administrative work and documentation in Dropbox, Pettet said. He and Moore had been meeting to transition and go over those password-protected files and other documents in the weeks leading up to the group’s annual board meeting on November 8—the date that Pettet was to officially take over as executive director.
“It was a blessing that I was able to receive everything document-wise from Steven prior to his accident,” he said. “Had we waited until the days leading up to that meeting, which was a very real possibility had our schedules not worked out, we would’ve been in a situation where documents that are critical to the organization’s ability to function might’ve been lost.”
That realization led NGPA to adopt a temporary succession plan at its November meeting.
“The details didn’t need to be hashed out right away,” he said, “but right now, today, there is someone within the board of directors who works most closely with the executive director position that has the ability to access all of those files in the event of my departure. And we’re not done with putting together a business-continuity plan. It’s our goal to have that plan completed by the end of the year.”
Leading Through Loss
A loss of this kind would hit any organization hard, but for NGPA—with a staff of just 16—it was particularly difficult.
“When we found out the news, it hit us all very personally, because, first and foremost, he’s a friend,” said Pettet. “It wasn’t the shock of, ‘Oh, we lost an employee,’ it was more about his fiancé, his mother, all of the people we know, that’s just how our organization is.”
The outpouring of support was immediate and almost overwhelming, he said. What helped was communicating to members that the organization was working on finding the best way to honor their friend. NGPA also coordinated with members who had experience in grief counseling to offer those services to staff and members.
“Beyond that, it was just doing what we could to support Steven’s family and friends—and each other—through an incredibly difficult time,” Pettet said.