Five Steps for Succession Success

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Life happens. Things change. You might be part of a wonderful leadership team that makes something like transition feel outside of the realm of possibilities. Regardless of how they happen – transitions, wether they are personal, professional, or organizational, are inevitable. Sometimes planned, yet other times unexpected, the anxiety around the uncertainty of the situation can be tough to bear, so it’s best to prepare in advance for these changes, even if you’re not necessarily wishing for them.

So when exactly is the perfect time to start succession planning? Well to be blunt – yesterday!

Succession planning includes identifying and actively molding both current employees and strong external candidates to become the next generation of leaders in your organization when the current leaders transition out. Having both planned and emergency processes in place will serve you well in the case of unexpected changes or departures.

If your organization’s sustainability is top of mind for you, then succession planning should be right up there with it. But in a recent study, only 27% of organizations reported having a succession plan in place!

Don’t find yourself scrambling when it’s too late. Let’s take a look at 5 main steps that will get you started on succession planning within your organization:

1. Identify Possible Vacancies

Which areas of your organization are most prone to a transition? Succession planning is most crucial for higher-level leaders such as executive directors, board members, and department leaders (ex. marketing, development, etc), and a succession plan for these areas is especially critical. But don’t get hung up on leadership! It’s important to also consider roles related to customer service, fundraising, or operations. Identify the experts and specialists in these departments and truly think through their contributions to your organization’s success. Just because they aren’t in managerial roles doesn’t mean their departure won’t leave a gap in your organization’s capabilities.

2. Understand What These Roles Require

Now that you have a better idea of where a gap may arise, think about what type of personnel would best fill those roles. What are the desirable traits and abilities of those currently in these positions? What are the ideal qualifications of the next people to fill these roles? What character traits are ideal, both for the individual position and for your organization? This is a good time to engage in active listening and learning, and gives you a great opportunity to take note on potential changes to the job description based on the unique needs of your organization and those you serve. 

3. Identify Potential Candidates

By now, you’ve identified potential gaps in staffing and have revamped the job descriptions for these roles. Way to make progress! Take a look at the skill set, traits, and qualifications that would best fit into these roles. Do you have existing personnel that would check all your boxes? If so, great! Now you can shift your focus to nurture and develop the existing staff to successfully fit into the role when the time occurs.

Not finding your dream candidate among current staff? Start scanning your network and industry for potential external candidates. If they’re not an exact match right now, don’t worry. You can recruit someone to join your organization in a different role, but who values the idea of a long-term promotion, and then begin the internal grooming process the same way you would with an existing staff member. Before you start recruiting, prioritize non-negotiable skills and traits, and then seek individuals with strong qualities that can still be developed if necessary. Tailoring the development of these individuals based on your need and capacity is a fantastic time investment that you will get a return on!

4. Onboard

You’ve found the perfect person for the job – woohoo! Now you’re tasked with setting this person up for success when they step into their new role. So, what’s your plan for getting the new team member caught up? Are there any immediate needs or environmental demands that need to be addressed? Onboarding should actually start long before your new employee shows up for their first day on the job. You should have a solid plan in place that provides learning and development opportunities supportive of leadership growth, especially during the first 3 months.

5. Set up Communication Channels

Succession planning is a tricky topic to master (as you probably noticed when we said only 27% of organizations have one!) This last consideration is incredibly important – and often overlooked. Thoughtful communication (or lack of) both internally and externally can have a big impact on the success of your transition. Remember that changes within key leadership roles are significant for external stakeholders as well. Involve your staff and external leadership in succession conversations and decisions when it makes sense. Additionally, transparency when communicating progress updates to your staff and stakeholders will help maintain their trust in you and your organization.

Change is often uncomfortable and seldom easy, and there will be some growing pains as you find your new normal. Following these steps won’t alleviate those growing pains completely, but we promise they’ll make the process a little easier. Now go work on your succession plan!

Here are a few extra (and free!) succession planning resources:

Nonprofit Executive Succession-Planning Toolkit – A very comprehensive tool that guides you through succession planning and includes examples of timelines, reflection questions, and board membership matrices.

Building Leaderful Organizations, Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Take a look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s approach to succession planning and strategic leadership development.

Top 12 Succession Planning Software – A list of useful software and apps for streamlined succession planning.

Still need help getting the ball rolling on your succession plan? Let’s talk! Schedule a free 30-minute consultation today!

Sangfroid Strategy helps organizations learn from where they’ve been, figure out where they want to go, and map out what they need to do to get there. We are experts when it comes to helping organizations build resiliency and move through difficult times and navigate complex situations. Schedule a free 30-minute consultation.

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