Good succession planning is about more than choosing a successor to the executive director. It needs to encompass planning for all leadership roles to strengthen the organization for the long term. A key component is leadership development planning, which provides a structured method to build leadership capacity.
As a young program manager at a social service agency, I was lucky to have many supervisors who were great mentors. They encouraged me and stretched my skills. They expected me to learn how to budget for my program, ask hard questions, supervise and mentor staff, communicate clearly, and develop partnerships in the community. They supported me in learning these skills by stretching my thinking and giving me opportunities to take on higher-level tasks. When I left that role to become an ED of a nonprofit, those leadership skills helped me tremendously, although I still had plenty to learn.
Besides boosting staff confidence and skills, expanding leadership development to all staff helps the person at the top to not have to take on all the responsibility. Empowering staff to make decisions and support each other will take duties off the plate of the senior leader. It isn’t easy to give up control, especially at first, but once skills have been successfully developed, it is amazing to watch staff grow and thrive.
As executive director at Community Crops, I initially had one other staff but grew the organization to twelve employees. In that time, my role changed greatly. I was no longer running programs, and sometimes not even consulted about new projects. I transitioned responsibilities to my staff, just as my mentors had done for me, but remained available to help at any time. I was excited when I learned about a new project that I had no knowledge of before it happened. It was fantastic to see my staff developing ideas that I would never have considered.
In more informal situations, it is important to note that any group of people shouldn’t have only one leader and rarely does. Various people step up in various situations, depending on their talents. One person may be great at logistics, another may be just the person to motivate the group to work together. Encouraging people to stretch their comfort zone and take on additional leadership tasks will help continue to spread out the responsibility.
It isn’t simple to develop a team of leaders, but almost everyone has the capacity to be a leader. Remember that all leaders had to learn how to lead. It wasn’t something that came naturally, and they made mistakes along the way. You’ll need to be patient and help people develop their skills, but it will be worth it in the end when you have a team accomplishing more than you could alone. Here are some practical ways to get started:
- Involve developing leaders in their own leadership planning. Find out what their aspirations are (though be prepared to push them to dream bigger), and what skills they see that they need to develop. Involving them will get their buy-in, but also will let them know that you believe in them and want them to grow.
- Work with them at their current level of leadership and experience. You may see their potential far beyond what they currently see, but give them space to get to that point. I was recently encouraging a friend to apply for an executive director role and she was concerned that she didn’t have any experience in fundraising. I gave her examples of all the skill sets that go into being a good fundraiser, all of which I have seen her exhibit many times. For her, it was an unknown role, but I can see the bigger picture and how it would be a role well suited to her.
- Build on real world experiences. Have a board member take on organizing a small event to prepare for becoming the gala chair. Ask a staff member to lead a meeting or a new project. Have a program manager develop their own budget.
- Onboarding is critical for any leadership development. As the person who sets the expectations, you need to make sure you communicate those and provide the reasoning behind them. No one wants to dump a project on someone else, but if they are given all the information they need, and the space to do it, it becomes an opportunity instead. Regular check-ins are critical as well so they feel supported.
- Carrying out leadership development doesn’t have to be expensive, but it will take time and intentionality. Plan for a mix of on the job training with stretch assignments, as well as mentoring and formal training. Formal training can be free webinars – there is a ton of content available online now.
- Work on leadership development skills for the entire team as well. Sometimes, it is valuable to have the whole team work on improving skills. This lets them work toward a common goal and support each other. Does your whole board need to step up its fundraising skills? Would your staff all benefit from facilitation skills? Do you have someone internally who would like to develop their training skills and could train their fellow staff members on a subject?
For a comprehensive look at creating a leadership development plan, along with a wealth of forms to use, Community Action Partnership has put out an excellent document titled Batter Up! — Building Your Leadership Bench
I’ll continue to write more on leadership development as it is a big topic. Let me know in the comments what areas would be most useful to you.