Is Your Association Ready When You Leave?

Some associations avoid talking about succession planning for fear the CEO might take it personally. But it’s an increasingly important---and strategic---conversation to have.

Why are boards so afraid to talk about the future?

Boards can do a fine job at steering their organizations, but even if they’ve successfully put together a strategic plan, they largely avoid the difficult question of thinking about what they’ll do when the staff leader departs. Most nonprofits don’t have a written succession plan, and some have looked at that flaw as strong evidence that nonprofit boards are ineffective—a debatable assessment, but with many nonprofit CEOs saying they’ll be leaving in the next few years, it’s become a more urgent concern.

The latest evidence of that urgency is a report from Third Sector New England titled “Essential Shifts for a Thriving Nonprofit Sector.” [PDF] The study, though limited to board members and staff leaders at nonprofits in the New England region, delivers some data points that have shown up in similar studies across nonprofitdom: Nearly two-thirds of the executives surveyed said they plan to leave their jobs in the next five years, and approximately 60 percent of the organizations don’t have a written succession plan.

The board is afraid that the exec will think they want new staff leadership.

So far, so unsurprising. But the report makes a case for succession planning as more than just a way for boards to ensure smooth leadership transitions. The succession plan, its authors argue, is a prompt for boards to think strategically about what will keep the organization sustainable. They write: “Succession planning is not just about preparing for an individual leader transition; nor should it be viewed as a technical fix or a transactional exercise. Rather, it is about ensuring organizational sustainability by identifying and addressing key vulnerabilities so that the organization is not dependent on any one leader, funder, strategy, or way of thinking.”

That’s one method for organizations to get around the so-called “great man” problem, where a leader is so entrenched in the identity of the place that it risks becoming rudderless when the leader departs. (That discussion is also likely to happen at 20th Century Fox, where Rupert Murdoch reportedly plans to retire.) But it’s an opportunity for the organization to think about what leadership structure serves the organization best. As the report puts it, leaders engaged in regular conversation on succession “can help these processes by exploring, researching and supporting new types of management models that do not focus on one person holding most of the responsibility at the top. New models could contribute to fresh and interesting financial models, leadership across collaborations and networks, and increased inclusion as more mission-driven people from diverse backgrounds are involved in leadership.”


Leigh Wintz, FASAE, CAE, principal consultant at Tecker International, says these issues are just as pronounced in the association community as they are in New England nonprofitdom. “There is definitely hesitation about actually writing down a succession plan and putting it into policy,” she says. Much of the reason why, she says, has to do with the difficulty of keeping a strategic discussion from being misread as a referendum on the current CEO. “The board is afraid that the exec will think they want new staff leadership. The executive is afraid the board will think they are ready to retire or move on. So nothing gets done beyond a general conversation.”

Keeping this from getting personal, or making a clean break, is easier said than done. The TSNE report notes that many departing boomer executives want to continue a relationship with their organization—an issue that “will be a question with which many organizations, specifically boards, will wrestle.” Wintz describes one case where an association adopted a succession plan knowing its CEO had spoken about retiring. “Unfortunately, the CEO had changed her mind about retiring and perceived that the board was ready to go,” she says. The CEO took a new job on a faster-than-expected timetable, but the board was at least equipped to appoint an interim executive and start a search.

Not a bad outcome, but in a perfect world, a discussion about succession doesn’t rattle individuals but opens them up to a conversation about what leadership looks like, and, as the TSNE report notes, how to support potential leaders from within. “Succession planning touches on everything from framing choices for the future (including asking whether the organization should exist), developing sustainable business models, to strengthening staff and board leadership,” they write.

Or, as Wintz puts it: “There are lots of ‘brave’ conversations that execs and boards need to have. This is one of them.”

How does your association handle succession planning without getting personal? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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