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Nonprofits And Board Succession: Having A Successor Plan


  Posted in Management on May 8, 2011 by     1 Comments 
Nonprofits And Board Succession: Having A Successor Plan
Successor planning is important. However, it is hard to do. Many organizations try to use a formula but with limited success. Successor planning answers the simple question: Who should replace the current leader?

Each year the question is asked and answered for the professional staff. The board decides whether to keep or replace the senior professional. The senior professional decides whether to keep or replace each subordinate. And the ripples flow down the organization chart from there. This is a formal structure process that we all expect and respect.

Does the board behave the same way?

Should the board behave the same way? We strongly recommend to our clients that the board adopt a commitment to excellence. The board should be the model of best practices it expects from the staff. Being the model of excellence helps ensure excellence at all levels. It is hard for the professional staff to be great if they are working for a group that is less than great. It is hard for the board to demand greatness if it is unwilling to be great. It is hard to convince the donors to fund greatness and believe that greatness is possible, if the senior leaders lack a commitment to greatness.

Some nonprofits handle the board succession issue through a formula. The vice chair becomes the chair after the term of the chair expires. Some of the arguments for this process are:
  • It gives the successor a chance to prepare for the job

  • It avoids the embarrassment of being passed over for the promotion

  • It creates stability and avoids a fight for the top spot

  • It is an honor we want to bestow on our best board member
The flaws in this approach are:

The world changes from one year to the next. The person who seemed right a year ago may lack the necessary skills to meet the challenges of today's market.

It is better to be passed over for the job than put in a position where one is likely to fail.

If there is only one successor and he or she leaves town or is unable to serve the succession plan fails.

Most years the senior professional retains his or her position (is their own successor). The perpetuation of the senior leadership is good for the organization. It makes sense to keep a good board chair as long as possible for the same reasons it makes sense to keep a good professional leader.

It should be an honor to serve rather than an honor to be asked to serve.

Before electing a chairperson, the board as a whole should discuss the competing visions. The board should select the person with the most compelling vision for the future. Without choices, why is it necessary to take a vote? Without a vision, why is it necessary to have a leader (the senior professional provides the necessary management skills)?

It is best practices to have two or three people in the queue waiting to be board chair. The current chair should be training all of them to be his or her successor and encouraging each to have a different vision for the organization. It is impossible to know which vision will be most appropriate for the ever-changing society your organization is serving.

One of the reasons many organizations (nonprofits, for-profits, and governments) struggled through and still struggle with the recession is their leadership. Their leadership was prepared for a continuation of growth and prosperity. They continue to replace their current leader with someone prepared for growth and prosperity rather than the current reality.

It looks like growth and prosperity are coming. However, it would have been nice to have a leader prepared for the hard times. Growth and prosperity are probably coming but do you have the contingent leadership in place in case there is a delay or a second dip in the economy?

Self-succession should be an option. Different leaders are right for different times in the economic cycle. When times are tough, a crisis leader is the right choice. However, terms of service rarely match the economic cycle as well as we would like. Is it a good idea to replace the right leader because of an administrative rule (no self-succession or term limit or...)? Is the goal to follow the rules or create a strong organization that is able to serve the client and the mission regardless of the external conditions?

Does your board chair realize that developing multiple successors is part of the job? If not him or her, then who is going to develop the potential successors?

Next Step:
  • Review your successor plan

  • Modify the plan to meet your organizations current and anticipated needs

  • Remind your board chair that it is his or her responsibility to develop multiple successors
It's good to be optimistic. You are optimistic but you still have fire insurance and a spare tire. Having a choice in successor leaders is like having spare tire. You are hopeful it will be unnecessary but on rare occasions you are glad you have it. Unfortunately, economic downturns, unexpected crisis, new competitors, and other unexpected challenges happen just like flat tires.

Sustainability comes from being prepared for the bumps in the road. With better preparation comes higher sustainability.

Is the sound leadership of your board as sustainable as you would like it to be?


Don Currie and his partners started Mission Enablers in 2001 to help nonprofits increase their capacity to serve those in need. He has also served on a variety of for-profit and nonprofit boards. His primary focus today is helping schools (private, parochial, Christian, and faith-based schools) increase enrollment, develop strong leadership teams, improve their governance, and increase their fundraising effectiveness. Mission Enablers newsletters share practical solutions to issues faced by nonprofit leaders and boards.


Tags: Nonprofit Board  Board of Directors  Nonprofit Organizations  Management  Sustainability  
Image Credits: StockFresh.com | Igor Stevanovic
05-11-2011   Comment by Robert Gianatti
Too Many NFP Rely On A Succession Formula To Determine Who Will Fill The Senior Appointment Within The Organisation Eg President Is Succeeded By The Senior VP Who In Turn Is Succeeded By The Junior VP Etc Usually Based On Time In Position. This Approach Is Comfortable, Does Not Rock The Boat And Generally Maintains A Steady As She Goes Corporate Culture Where Process Is All Important Rather Than The Outcomes Required To Be Achieved. This Lack Of Flexibility Within The Board Structure Ensures Opportunities Are Missed, Or At Best, Only Partially Realised.
Boards Need To Be Dynamic Organisms Which Determine The Culture Of The Organisation.
It Does Not Necessarily Follow That A Volunteer Who Has Served His Apprenticeship Through Succession Makes A Good Board Member No Matter How Well Intentioned.
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