Writing a Board Succession Policy

As organizations begin to plan for succession for the executive director and other key staff, they often realize that the board needs a succession plan as well.

I remember all too well the board meeting when our chair breezed late and announced this was her last board meeting. She’d changed positions at her company and could no longer serve. None of us expected this news. She’d been a fantastic board chair for the past couple of years. She was involved, brought great ideas, and cared about the mission. Everyone else looked around at each other, with no one willing to step up. Our vice-chair had stated from the beginning that he was unable to put in the time to be the chair. We had no one ready to step up. Finally, one newer board member raised his hand and agreed to take on the position. While I appreciate that he was willing to do so, he didn’t have the skills or time to be an effective board chair, and as the executive director, I lost the thought partner that I had had before. It was a frustrating two years until a new board chair stepped up. With planning and preparation, it could have been avoided. I knew that board chair wouldn’t stay forever, but I hoped she would, and didn’t plan for a transition.

Here are the key parts of a board succession policy:

  • Create job descriptions – including responsibilities, criteria, and performance goals. Consider creating a general board member job description as well as for the various officer and committee chair positions.
  • Define succession for your board – start with the bylaws and what they stipulate around officer terms, the appointment process, and other related topics. Then put together a document that charts out who is currently serving, and who will next take on those roles. Include committee chairs if those are important for your organization.
  • Review the needs of the organization for expertise needed, diversity needed, etc.
  • Create a process to seek out future board leaders – Instead of waiting until right before elections and asking any willing person to serve, start looking 6 months ahead of time, and seek out highly skilled board members. Even if they aren’t able to serve currently, they may be able to refer you to emerging leaders who would be a good fit. Invite the potential candidates to events or board meetings so they can get a sense of the organization and the work of the board.
  • Finally, craft a leadership development plan that will help new board members develop their skills, and be prepared to step into leadership roles. Similar to a leadership development plan for staff, this document will detail aspects such as full board training topics, mentoring, onboarding, and stretch assignments.

Here are some additional aspects that would develop a strong succession process.

  • Develop a board self-evaluation process where each board member evaluates themselves and the work of the board as a whole.
  • Conduct exit interviews with board members who are leaving to learn how the board can improve.
  • Assign mentors to any new board member so they can ask their questions outside of board meetings and not feel intimidated doing so.
  • A strong board manual will help new board members get up to speed quickly.

Taken together, these steps to develop a board succession plan will provide structure to your board and position it for success in the community. Even if your board is already doing some of these steps, a written document will ensure that they are continued for future board members.

Let me know if you have more questions or feedback on creating a board succession plan.

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