Don’t Wing It: Lessons on Sudden Succession From the British Royals

When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepped away from their royal duties, they set in motion an unexpected leadership transition. A leader's sudden departure could catch you by surprise too—which is why you should have a plan in place, even if you don't think you'll need it.

If you spent last month following the British royal family’s high-profile leadership transition, you might have felt something like relief. After all, it was someone else dealing with a sudden leadership transition—not your association.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot to learn from the saga of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who last month decided they’d had enough of the royal spotlight and moved to Canada, significantly scaling back hereditary roles that come with a significant amount of public-facing work.

The shift was unprecedented and dramatic, and it took a while to nail down the details. Organizations with succession issues of their own to worry about can learn something important from the episode, said Don Tebbe, a nonprofit advisor who focuses on leadership succession.

“The fact of the matter is, every career ends in a transition. It’s just a matter of when, how, and how well managed when that transition finally occurs,” he said. And that means organizations should be prepared.

Here are a few elements that Tebbe says add up to a smart approach to succession:

Put a plan down on paper. No matter if a leader is well-positioned to stay in their role for decades or if they’re nearing retirement, organizations should adopt an official succession plan to guide what will happen when the CEO leaves—or even takes a short-term leave of absence. With a plan in place, the organization’s other executives and volunteer leaders won’t “have to be in a tizzy when there’s a transition.”

Look for interim assistance. If the unexpected occurs, don’t panic. Associations have a lot of options that can help fill the gap in case of a sudden need. A board that finds itself in this situation “should not try to scramble around and start posting ads and all that,” Tebbe says. “The first thing they should do is hire themselves an interim CEO, somebody that’s going to give them some breathing room.” An interim executive can “let the dust settle a little bit” while laying the groundwork for the next full-time leader.

Consider the messaging—public and private. A high-profile leader’s departure can cause angst both inside and outside the organization. Internally, “there’s an emotional component to it,” Tebbe says. “The first thing that you want to do is to assemble the staff and make sure that everybody knows, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to be business as usual. We’re on top of this.’” As for the public discussion, Tebbe says it depends on the nature of the departure. If a beloved leader dies, for example, the messaging should focus on compassion, while a scandal would require a different kind of careful touch. “It’s a crisis-messaging situation, and you probably want to get some of your best minds on the board on that,” he says. “You may even want to get some crisis communications help.”

Don’t just consider CEO succession. Discussion of succession typically focuses on a few people at the top, but Tebbe says it’s worth planning for departures in other parts of the organization too. “The backup plan is something that you can use for all of your critical positions,” he says. “And that backup plan can also include some of the communications pieces that you might otherwise include in the policy.”

You can’t replace your leader with a cardboard cutout, unfortunately, so you need a strategy. (Raylipscombe/iStock Unreleased)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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