Imagine losing your organization’s chief paid staff person or executive director. An unexpected vacancy could take many months to fill and is very costly and disruptive to the organization. Whether you are a volunteer leader reading this or the executive director, a succession plan is critical to the success of your organization.
Whenever we think of a succession plan, we see it as a one-time event that happens in an emergency situation where the Executive Director gets hit by the proverbial bus. Succession planning is not a one-time event but a fluid and ongoing process that help to develop staff while ensuring the mission of the organization continues.
By expecting the unexpected and creating a succession plan for the organization, you are mitigating risk and maintaining a commitment to your members to deliver valued services without interruption. There are seven components of a succession plan that are important:
The Why – In the plan itself, describe why it is important to have a succession plan. Why did we create this? Future leaders will be reading this plan and need to understand why it is important, why it was created and why it should be updated on a regular basis
Plan Implementation – It is extremely important to understand how it is implemented in the event of a vacancy by answering five questions (include them in the plan):
- Who does the executive director need to inform in the event of a planned absence?
- How is the board of directors informed in the event of an unplanned absence?
- Who is authorized to review and modify the plan?
- Who has the authority to put the plan into action?
- Is there a budget in place to account for additional expenses?
Executive Director Priority Functions– The next section of the plan needs to define the critical functions of the executive director and who will take over each of these functions. Develop a “function matrix” and update it regularly
Short-Term Planned or Unplanned Vacancy – Not all vacancies are long term and are temporary due to illness, surgeries and family emergencies. The organization needs to define short-term “stopgaps” as well and include it in the plan. For example, your organization may decide that if the absence is 30 days or less, an interim or acting executive director is not necessary but assigns temporary duties to other staff or volunteer leaders
Long-Term Planned or Unplanned Vacancy– In the case of a long-term vacancy as defined by the organization, the organization needs to identify an individual in the organization that can serve as interim executive director until a permanent replacement can be found. Review these appointments on a regular basis. If an organization does not have a suitable appointment, it should consider identifying interim executive director consultants that are vetted in advance and ready to step in when a vacancy occurs
Compensation– Determine the compensation or consulting fee that will be paid to the prospective interim executive director identified. Make sure there is agreement by the prospective candidate around compensation. Not having agreement up front is like not having a plan at all
Communication– If either a planned or unplanned long-term vacancy occurs, have in place a thorough communication plan. Just as the plan is important, communicating the vacancy to members and staff is equally important. The succession plan should identify who will create the communication plan and when the communication should occur. It is important that the communication plan include:
- Details around the succession plan
- Details around the process to replace the Executive Director
- A statement assuring the membership and key stakeholders that there will be no impact to the organization and operations will continue as they have in the past with no interruption of service
- The assignment of an individual on the Board that will field all questions around the vacancy (if needed) so that there is one voice speaking on behalf of the organization
Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” A succession plan is an important ingredient to the success of your organization, no matter how certain your organization’s future appears. If done well, your organization will look professional with a well-developed message and plan. Done poorly, your organization will appear disorganized and it will cause concern in some members around the long-term future of the organization. Take action now and avoid failure later!