Succession Planning: Conversation Avoided

Succession Planning: Conversation Avoided

leadership succession stone footpath

Change – sometimes surprisingly fast change – remains the one constant we can count on. Despite this, many organizations fail to prepare for the most predictable change of all…the departure of their chief executive or other key leaders. Success in leadership transitions is dependent upon readying the organization and its people for change. So, why are executive directors and boards reluctant to talk proactively about succession planning?

First of all, change is hard. In many ways, succession planning is like estate planning. People don’t like doing wills, but they know they’re important, and a real priority. Being proactive and taking advantage of advanced planning puts the executive director and board of directors in the driver’s seat to make plans and decisions in the best interest of the organization and its people, not leaving it to others or to be handled during crisis.

In examining the tendency for avoidance, it’s helpful to look at different perspectives:

Executive Director:

– If the top leader takes the subject of succession planning to the board chair, how will he or she be perceived? Is suggesting that an organization discuss leadership transition a sign of weakness? Will the board think the executive is leaving? Burned out? Less confident? Somehow less capable to effectively lead the organization? Will it plant the thought in the board’s mind that another leader would be better?

– Especially true of founders and long-time executives, there’s a great sense of pride and ownership in leading an organization. Making the decision to retire or move on to another opportunity isn’t an easy decision: “I’ve built this institution. What happens to it if I’m no longer at the helm?” Leaders who helped shape an organization often find it difficult to imagine a next step that is as compelling.

– Many hesitate to bring it up because dealing with the day-to-day work is hard enough to handle, let alone trying to plan for something often considered so future-oriented. There’s an overwhelming inclination to just wait and address the issue when it happens.

Board of Directors:

– If a member or committee of the board broaches the subject of succession planning, will it threaten the current executive director? Will the executive perceive the conversation to suggest a problem with his or her leadership?

– As a board member, one “signs up” for a specific duty. While a member may understand and respect the need for succession planning, he or she may simply not want to take on that task. “Why bring more work on myself?”

Obviously transitions raise a long list of issues that point to the complexity and difficulty of such pivotal moments. While there are no simple solutions, changes in leadership can be addressed positively and proactively and strengthen the organization as a result.

It can be helpful to examine succession planning in the broader context of executive transition management. The range of work can be short- and/or long-term planning, at a minimum ensuring that there’s an emergency plan if an executive director is suddenly unable to perform his or her duties. If an organization is lead by a founder or long-tenured director, it makes sense to have a conversation about continuity and legacy beyond the executive. And unlike a traditional search process, executive transition management helps organizations prepare for leadership succession, months, even years before the actual transition takes place, coupling the search and recruitment process with a more comprehensive range of organizational planning and leadership development services.

Despite anxiety and hesitancy in approaching the topic of succession, the positive outcomes of thoughtful conversation and transition planning far outweigh potential negative affects.

Read these other related blog posts:

Leadership Transition and Organization Preparedness

Challenges to Addressing Leadership Transition


brick closeAbout Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.

The Power of an Interim Executive Director

When a nonprofit organization experiences a leadership transition, hiring an interim executive director can be the most logical and positive action its board can take.

Leadership change is an increasingly common aspect of nonprofit organizational life. Multiple studies reinforce the impending turnover of top leadership in the nonprofit sector, due in great part to the aging and retiring boomer population. It’s not a matter of if, but when the change is coming. When your organization experiences this transition, research and practice suggests that groups that plan well and use a skilled interim executive director, emerge stronger, more fiscally sound, and with higher levels of optimism about the future impact of their programs and services.

Leadership transition is a period commonly marked with emotion, tension, and stress. Internally, staff and board are in the midst of separating from the previous executive, and the departing director is in an in-between state and can be confused about how much influence he or she wants or should have on the agency’s future. If the director’s departure is forced, emotions may be particularly high.

Externally, some funders, donors, and volunteers will take a “wait and see” approach before becoming involved and investing in the organization. This can create strain between needs and resources, further taxing administrative systems.

A highly skilled interim executive director temporarily takes the helm of an organization, helps the board and staff address important systems and capacity issues, and lays the groundwork for the following leader’s success. This leader:

–       Serves as a bridge, giving the board ample time to conduct a thoughtful search process and managing the day-to-day executive responsibilities that include: conducting an objective organizational review, leading anxious staff, reassuring wary funders, and keeping finances and revenue generation on track.

–       Tackles unique challenges related to the transition, building on strengths and addressing particular vulnerabilities.

–       Helps the board clarify its vision and future leadership needs.

–       Models excellence in management and leadership.

–       Mentors the new executive director once appointed.


When considering hiring an interim executive director for your organization:

–       Begin with the end in mind. Your board should determine what it wants and needs and what is most critical to success over the next few months.

–       Identify urgent issues or challenges presently facing your organization.

–       Review the current executive director’s job description, determine priorities for the transition period, and draft an Interim job description.

–       Seek an interim executive director with solid management experience and a transition skillset. This takes precedence over familiarity with your organization or industry.

–       Consider that the assignment is both temporary (four-eight months) and part-time (20 – 25 hours/week) and that the individual should not be a candidate for the full-time position.

–       Realize that, due to the unique demands of the role, interim executives are almost always paid higher on an hourly basis than the agency’s permanent executive (although, most interims are part-time and do not receive normal agency benefits).

–       Tap local resources for potential candidates, such as area college nonprofit degree programs, consultants serving the nonprofit sector, industry sector affinity groups, and nonprofit consortiums.

There is great power and potential in this “neutral zone” – the space after the former director leaves and the new leader begins. The organization is more open to change than usual and poised to leverage the heightened opportunity. Systems and culture become a bit “unglued” and can be put back together in new and exciting ways that leave the nonprofit stronger and more sustainable.

Leveraging the Transformative Power of Diversity Among Board Leadership

Leveraging the Transformative Power of Diversity Among Board Leadership

Diversity Among Board Leadership


In a feature article of The Nonprofit Quarterly – The Inclusive Nonprofit Boardroom: Leveraging the Transformative Potential of Diversity – authors Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette shared highlights of a study they conducted of Canadian nonprofit organizations examining how they made sense of diversity, and what they saw as best practices for enhancing it. Their findings and reflections reveal the potential in harnessing the power of diversity in organization leadership.

Their focus was on diversity and the dynamics of inclusion, versus assimilation or differentiation, defined as the degree to which members of diverse and traditionally marginalized communities are present on boards and meaningfully engaged in the governance of their organizations.

I believe that a commitment to diversity and inclusiveness among organization leadership is vitally important. And my observation is that this work is challenging, complex, and requires dedication and commitment over the long-term. Many organizations, as they attempt to bring greater diversity to their board and staff, have experienced a decline in organization performance and forward progress. I’ve witnessed the changes creating tension, conflict, and division. I conclude that this is due in great part to two factors: 1) a misunderstanding of what it truly means for an organization to embrace diversity and inclusion, and 2) the lack of sincere, consistent, long-term commitment to and execution of a diversity plan.

From the study, interviewee Kristina Bourne described an environment of inclusion as “a culture in which every individual is valued as a vital component of the organization’s success and competitive advantage.” Bourne describes this concept as an alternative to seeing diversity as an end in itself or something to be managed or tolerated.

Reflecting on their interviews, they found that informants were talking about two different types of inclusion — which Bradshaw and Fredette termed “functional inclusion” and “social inclusion”— and about how the two can work together to create something transformational.

The article describes functional inclusion as characterized by goal-driven and purposeful strategies for the increased inclusion of members of diverse or traditionally marginalized communities. Social inclusion, in contrast, is characterized by the participation of members of diverse groups in the interpersonal and cultural dynamics of the board, based on meaningful relational connections. Unlike the functional notions of inclusion, social inclusion also stresses the value derived from social standing and relational acceptance within the context of the board.

A commitment to and healthy balance of both social and functional inclusion is required for success. Merely recruiting board members from diverse communities and expecting positive outcomes is not enough. As you consider how your nonprofit’s board will evolve to embrace diverse, inclusive leadership, consider the following:

  • Your organization’s leadership must be reflective of the diverse communities and constituents you serve. It’s simply sound business practice.
  • Be prepared for the complexities and challenges of becoming a more inclusive organization.
  • Include your commitment to diversity and inclusiveness as a core part of your organization’s strategic plan. Approach the work with a sincere and genuine commitment to execute this core strategy consistently over the long-term. It must become a part of your organization’s DNA.
  • Begin with simple actionable steps, with people you know. Progress slowly and steadily, remembering that relationship building takes time.
  • Once on board, support new members through transitional phases of board entry, and authentically engage them in social aspects that build strong relationships and board cohesion, such as mentorship, orientation practices, and other group-building processes like retreats and workshops.
  • Ensure that yours is a strong and welcoming organizational culture, helping new members feel comfortable and at ease.
  • Hold meetings at times and in locations where everyone could attend (in locations with elevators in order to be accessible to those with physical disabilities, or on days that accommodated religious holidays, for example),
  • Exhibit sensitivity regarding the use of humor and choices of subject matter that could marginalize or silence people, or exhibit unconscious privilege.
Powerful Questions

Powerful Questions

asking powerful questions

I’ve been thinking a lot about powerful questions lately. And how the potency lies in their simplicity and delivery.

In coaching, the power of a direct, concise, well-timed question evokes reflection and propels a client toward self-discovery and transformation. You know you’ve ‘got one’ when a coachee’s reaction goes something like this: “Wow. That’s a great question. Let me think about it for a minute.” Or, “Well, I never thought about it quite like that before…” Powerful questions halt you in your tracks and even make you uncomfortable. Your head tilts. Eyes squint. You grow quiet, contemplative.

In my experiences working with organizations, I’m reminded of a time when a particularly insightful and courageous individual asked precisely the right questions, spurring actions that changed an entire course (though in the moment they seemed unrelentingly stubborn and persistent).

In this particular case, I was working for the United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro. We were holding our monthly board meeting and reporting on financial results of a recent special event. These disappointing results, paired with other line-item budget-to-actual revenue shortfalls, painted a picture of concern. A financially savvy board member began firing a series of powerful questions, probing into current and prior year financial data.

Following this meeting and subsequent analysis, we began a review that ultimately revealed significant, cumulative direct and indirect revenue loss related to our events and also to other business functions that had failed to meet projections. Individually, each issue alone had quietly gone unnoticed or was of minor concern, but together the problems were steadily building. During the examination some reasoned, too, that we were distracted from a lack of focus.

I recall the general initial reaction to this individual’s inquiry as that of frustration, defense, and a sense of vulnerability – though over time, it evolved to one of gratitude. That day, the board member began to pull a thread that ultimately unraveled a series of issues that received immediate, priority attention, and we began crafting a strategy that changed our overall scope of work and the way we did business. All because one individual saw what others didn’t, or were afraid to question.

I’ve learned a lot from this and other experiences where I’ve witnessed powerful questions in action.

–        Don’t be afraid to question. Chances are if you have a particular question, others probably have it too.

–        Ask with a spirit of curiosity and sincerity. Great questions are selfless, not asked to illustrate the cleverness of the questioner, and are supportive, insightful, and challenging.

–        Think before you ask. What do you want your question to accomplish? Intentionally frame your question so that you encourage collaborative thinking and cannot be perceived as threatening.

–        Be succinct and direct. The powerful question is powerful because it cuts through to the heart of the issue. Short is good.

–        Allow silence to do its work. Ask, then be quiet and wait. Pay attention to the impact of the questions you ask.