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What’s Success Got to Do with It?

Co-authors:  Jill Blair, Strategy and Organizational Consultant & Jeffrey M. Glebocki, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

Leadership transitions are inevitable. They are natural moments of evolution and change that affect people and organizations. Leadership transitions can be disruptive and create a sense of loss – so much so that we often choose to avoid thinking ahead about them. Transitions can threaten the well-being of an organization by disturbing the picture of what the future was supposed to look like. On the flip side, leadership transitions can sometimes provide an opportunity for new beginnings and open the door to revitalized or increased engagement by board and staff.

We can successfully manage leadership transitions by being prepared – and that preparation comes in the form of succession planning. This paper highlights some of the key issues to consider in managing succession successfully.

Q. What is a leadership succession plan?

A. It is an expression of an organization’s commitment to continuity and stability. It is a written plan that identifies the process by which leadership will be assumed when there is either a planned or unplanned departure by key organizational leaders – board or staff.

Q. Why is it important to have a leadership succession plan?

A. Because transitions can be disruptive to the health of an organization. A succession plan provides an opportunity for board and staff leadership to anticipate transitions and manage them well. A succession plan is an essential and critical source of guidance and stability during emergency or unplanned transitions. Every organization, including foundations, should have a succession plan in place at a minimum to guide them during emergency transitions.

Q. Who creates a leadership succession plan?

A. The board is responsible for creating and implementing succession plans for both board and Executive Director transitions but good practice is for the board to do so in partnership with the Executive Director.

Q. What are examples of different kinds of transitions that require leadership succession planning?

A. The four most common transition points requiring succession plans are board leadership transitions (when a board officer steps down), when board members rotate off or depart the board, when next generation leadership comes into power, and when the foundation engages its first key staff or experiences a change in key staff.

In each case the goal is to anticipate the transition, planned and unplanned – identify the potential for instability and craft strategies that are consistent with organizational values, purpose, practice and maturity, and to manage that potential pre-emptively. The process of succession planning requires the board taking the time to assess its values, practices, risk tolerance and organizational maturity and use that assessment to frame up a series of practical steps they will take in the event of key departures.

Q. What distinguishes each type of transition – board leadership, generational, Executive Director?

A. Board and Board Leadership: In the case of board and board leadership transition, the bylaws and/or the succession plan should explicate the assumptions associated with the rotation of members on the board and with the transfer of authority among board officers under different circumstances. Term limits, qualifications and other expectations for effective board service should be explicit and in writing.

For example, some boards have a Vice President (or Vice Chair) position that is expected to serve as a surrogate for the President (or Chair) during his/her absence on an emergency or as-needed basis. In some cases, there is a Vice President who is effectively a “leader in waiting” who has agreed to assume the leadership role during a planned transition.

Generational: The goal is to ensure that next generation foundation leaders are prepared to assume their role as stewards – that they are oriented to the foundation’s history, values, purpose and practices; understand the expectations associated with their unique role and position; and have an appreciation of the context within which the foundation operates.

A succession plan for next generation leadership may include an expectation that before assuming full membership on the board, incoming family members must first reach an age of maturity, possess a range of experiences, demonstrate a commitment to charitable work, participate as a non-voting board member in meetings and/or retreats, serve on a committee of the board, contribute personal wealth to charitable causes, attend site visits, review proposals and grantee reports, etc.

Executive Director: What may distinguish the transition associated with an Executive Director is the degree to which the foundation is committed to growing internal leadership capacity as opposed to valuing the introduction of outside perspective in the role of organizational leader.

A board’s perspective on the value of continuity or the value of external perspectives may come into play for both planned and unplanned transitions. In cases when an Interim needs to be named, a board that is more oriented toward growing internal capacity may have designated a position within the succession plan to fulfill the leadership vacancy in cases of emergency. Alternatively, for a board that is more comfortable bringing outside perspectives inside, the succession plan may direct a process for enlisting interim leadership, including the qualities they seek and the sources they tap in doing so. While the latter approach doesn’t exclude internal candidates, it does express values worthy of consideration during a time of transition. In both cases, by addressing these questions thoughtfully and considering the benefits of different strategies for dealing with emergency or temporary vacancies in leadership, the board is able to bring greater clarity of roles and expectations to the foundation.

Q. When do you start leadership succession planning?

A. There’s no time like the present. Through the conversation about managing transitions, emergency, as needed or planned, the board will deepen its shared understanding of roles and obligations and be the stronger for it. Having a succession plan increases the potential for managing change successfully.

Q. How do you start leadership succession planning?

A. Succession planning is a process; not just a set of stated expectations. It is a conversation and exploration intended to generate shared understanding and clarity of roles, responsibilities and expectations. The process should produce a written plan that reflects the context of the foundation – its values, mission and operating assumptions. Here are examples of questions that might be used to initiate a succession planning process during which the board will deepen its understanding of shared values, assess the alignment between values and practice, establish a common perspective on the context within which the foundation operates and clarify expectations of both board and staff leadership:

Q. What does a leadership succession plan look like?

A. A succession plan should always be in writing, and should serve the values, culture and aspirations of the foundation. Here are several ideas for elements of a succession plan:

It is our hope this introduction to leadership succession planning will encourage you to explore how best to manage leadership transition in your foundation – to begin developing your own succession plan or fine-tuning an existing one. This document is the first iteration of a more in-depth article we are preparing in concert with Exponent Philanthropy on the topic of leadership transition and succession planning.

We invite you to share your questions, comments and stories with us about your foundation’s experiences around leadership transitions and succession planning. Contact us at or so we might fully address the “real world” concerns with which you are wrestling. Thank you!

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