The possibility of a long-term trusted and high performing executive director leaving their position is a scary prospect for most boards. It can be made more manageable by intentional planning and open discussions. In addition, taking the time to explore succession planning and leadership development now will benefit the organization immediately through reduced workloads, better-trained staff, and the opportunity for future growth.
Through a new program called Successful Transitions, Lincoln organizations developed their plans and prepared for the future. The first Successful Transitions cohort consisted of six nonprofit organizations. One has an executive director who had a firm retirement date less than a year away. Two others have founding executive directors considering retirement someday in the future, but knew they needed to put plans in place for a smooth transition. The other three have no departure plans but understood that succession planning would benefit the entire organization now and in the future. There was also a wide range of organization size (staff sizes between 1 and 75) and executive director tenure (2 to 40+ years).
I designed the program to fit this variety of organizational situations. During the three group sessions, I presented the core concepts of succession planning but also allowed time for in-depth discussion. Despite their varying backgrounds, the executive directors and board representatives supported each other and had many insights to share.
The first topic was how succession planning looks at far more than just the current executive director. It needs to focus on the entire organization, and how leadership is being developed among staff and board alike. Additional discussion covered how succession planning creates conditions for the current ED to succeed and ensures a sound infrastructure is in place for an emergency, vacation, or a search for a new executive. Each attendee shared stories of how a lack of succession planning had led to a crisis situation for an organization.
In the individual coaching sessions, we explored each executive director’s specific questions. The individual session topics ranged from dealing with a challenging board chair to exploring the concept of co-executive directors. During the individual sessions, I also answered questions about developing the actual succession plan.
The final piece of the program is a customized training for the board of directors on succession planning. For the founding executive director who is retiring soon, I led a discussion with the board on how they could best support the incoming executive director. For a director who has no plans to leave, the board presentation focused on how succession planning was really about leadership development and sustainability for the organization, which would benefit them now.
Successful Transitions was funded by four local foundations, Cooper Foundation, Woods Charitable Fund, Lincoln Community Foundation, and the Community Health Endowment. The program was sponsored by Cause Collective, which strengthens nonprofits in Lincoln through collaboration, education, and advocacy.
Melissa Filipi, executive director for Community Services Fund, is one of the directors who has no plans to leave her organization but saw succession planning as important. She said, “While we are not facing a transition in the foreseeable future, I felt that having a solid plan in place that captured best practices and common steps would be valuable for Community Services Fund. I want to ensure that when I leave, we have set a solid framework for a smooth transition and future success. We approached this as more than a plan for the Executive Director’s departure by incorporating sustainability and strategic planning into the discussions. Any transition whether staff or board will involve clear discussions about the skills and attributes needed to move CSF’s strategic plan forward.”
Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director at Dimensions, said, “The Successful Transitions program was an exceptionally valuable experience that helped Dimensions Foundation begin thoughtful planning toward a future transition for a long-time executive director. As we learned, it’s so helpful to begin this process years in advance of the actual transition. Ingrid Kirst is an excellent facilitator who ran the program well and shared a wealth of valuable resources. We very much appreciated the opportunity.”
Update: Successful Transitions is Now Virtual and National!
I have converted the Successful Transitions program to a virtual series, which allows me to offer it in a variety of geographic locations. This new format is receiving rave reviews: “I have used Zoom for years, but never got “fancy”. I was impressed with your planful use of time and activities. Good use of visuals, information sharing (succinct) and discussion Qs. Good discussion questions/prompts. Small group and large group invites to Q/A were timely and sincere and welcomed. Easy to participate and stay engaged. Nice job.”
Now that the program has been updated for the virtual world, organizations can participate from anywhere in the country. Learn more and sign up on the Successful Transitions page.