Departure-Defined Succession Planning

A wide range of terms are used in succession planning and the type of plan you create varies depending on your current stage in the process. I covered the basic types of planning necessary for all organizations in my article on succession planning. In this article, I will provide an overview for those organizations that have a long-time executive director who is planning far in advance for a transition.

Departure-Defined Succession Planning is used by organizations one to four years before a transition happens. This planning gives the board a chance to assess the organizational strength in key areas such as leadership, management team, strategy, resources, internal systems, and more. This type of plan will be most commonly used by organizations with executive directors who plan to retire after a long and successful tenure at the organization. This planning gives the ED the confidence that the organization will thrive after their departure and gives them a say in the transition planning.

I worked with a multi-million dollar agency where the ED has plans to retire in a few years. She felt comfortable sharing this information with the board and together they made plans for the next few years. One priority was changing to a more robust accounting system that would better suit their needs. It was clear it needed to be done, and that it wasn’t going to be an easy process. The board didn’t want until a new ED came and was up to speed enough to tackle this project, so they asked the current ED to handle it. Another priority was transferring her donor relationships to other people and recording information on the relationships so that someone else could retain that connection. Both the ED and the board wanted to have plenty of time for the transfer of information. After making these plans with the board, the current ED felt much better that the organization would be in good hands when she did leave. She was also energized by the plans and excited to move forward to pave the way for a new ED.

Overall, this type of plan helps the organization prepare for a transition. It helps both the board and ED be more comfortable with the idea that the transition will happen. It isn’t going to be easy, especially in an organization with a long-term leader, but if everyone keeps the focus on what is best for the organization, it will be successful. Allowing the board and current ED to think through what is the best use of their remaining time together can help focus the work.

Step 1: Preparation

Departure-defined succession planning begins with the ED privately considering when they want to leave. This can be guided by an ideal retirement date, or just simply because the ED wants to leave when the organization is most successful. Sometimes it can be helpful to work with a coach or trusted mentor to plan out this date.

Note: I don’t recommend announcing a departure more than 12 months in advance to staff or the full board. Everyone gets tired of being in “transition mode”. However, a lot can still be done. Getting the board engaged in succession planning and sustainability planning is simply a best practice to prepare for a transition whenever it happens. Saying something like, “I don’t have any plans to leave, but everyone leaves their jobs at some time and I want our organization to be as strong as possible when that happens.” is a good framing for the topic.

Step 2: Assessment and Planning

Considering how a transition would impact an organization is a great time to assess the capacity of the organization. Often organizations realize that too much is in the hands of the current ED and their successor would never be able to juggle all that they do. Starting with helping the ED to divide up their responsibilities will lessen the burden on them now and make the job more sustainable in the future. Other areas to focus on include finances, strategy, infrastructure, other staff leadership, and board.

For example, is the board ready to hire an executive director? If not, what would it take to get them ready? Who should be recruited for the board? Are there areas of infrastructure that are impacting the staff’s work, such as aging computers or inadequate software? Is the rest of the management team as strong as it could be? Would revisions to the organizational chart be beneficial? Is the current salary competitive? If not, how could it be increased, and how could the current executive be compensated for working for reduced pay for many years?

In addition, a strong succession plan is also critical at this point. This plan will outline many areas detailed above.

From here, the organization creates a plan to address any needed areas of growth and begins working through them in the implementation phase.

Step 3: Implementation

Once strong plans are created, organizations can begin implementing them. The timetable may vary. Some actions may need to happen immediately, some closer to a planned departure, and some after the current ED leaves. For example, spreading out leadership tasks among more staff could happen now, and prepare everyone for an eventual departure. At the same time, these changes should help the current ED reduce their workload, making it easier for them to stay longer at the organization. It also helps the current ED know what they should focus on over the next few years. Other immediate steps might include recruiting stronger board members and improving fundraising practices.

A comprehensive discussion of what the organization needs in the new ED and what the board will expect of the new person in their first 3-6 months should happen closer to the actual departure. Much could change before that time, and the board may not be ready to articulate those needs yet.

I recommend Tom Adams’ book, The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide as a great introduction to the subject. Community Action’s guide to succession planning also covers the subject well.

Please reach out if you’d like to chat about your own succession planning. I have many resources to share and have helped organizations create and execute their transition plans. I’m at or book a time with me on this page.

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