Gilman Partners in the News: Succession Planning Made Smart

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 11.22.25 AMAs baby boomers move toward retirement, many nonprofits are facing the departure of longtime executive directors and CEOs. Others are learning their executive director or next-in-line leader has been recruited to run a larger organization to fill a vacancy created by a retirement.

One of the critical responsibilities of being a nonprofit board member is to ensure continuity of strong leadership. Most organizations have a succession plan in place, but some of the best-laid plans go awry.

What steps should boards take to be prepared for a change at the top?

  • Have regular, candid talks with your executive director to confirm her commitment to stay or understand her timeframe for transitioning out. In an ideal world, you will have at least a year to plan for a smooth transition.
  • Develop an internal succession plan so that one or more individuals are positioned to be candidates for the top spot when it becomes available. Provide them with leadership development and other training opportunities.
  • Create and populate a "wish list" of potential leaders from your networks in the business and non-profit communities.

 Despite well-intentioned succession planning efforts, there will be times when a full-fledged leadership search is necessary. Even if you have strong internal candidates, you should compare them to top talent in the market.

The first step is to form a search committee composed of board members and other key volunteers or stakeholders. Once a search committee is established, a key decision is whether to engage an outside search firm.

Whether you decide to proceed on your own or engage a search firm, here are a few important guidelines to follow:

  • Develop a thorough job profile that aligns with the strategic plan of the organization. It may reflect a different skillset or management style than the incumbent.
  • Make sure the compensation is competitive, especially if has been a while since you have been in the market for top talent. Be creative. A strong compensation package doesn't just come down to salary.
  • Identify a diverse slate of candidates, including business professionals who are considering a career change to do more meaningful work. (It helps if they have demonstrated a commitment to mission-based work through some form of volunteering).
  • As you evaluate candidates, remember you are also "selling" them on the opportunity. The best candidates may have several options and will appreciate learning what is special about your organization and team.
  • Recognize the importance of maintaining confidentiality. Many candidates will be gainfully employed and will want to maintain a low profile until the later stages of the process.
  • Keep the process moving at a healthy pace in order to maintain the interest of talented candidates.

The key to avoiding surprises is making succession planning an ongoing responsibility of the board. Be proactive, engage in dialogue with your executive director, and stay in front of this critical issue.

This article originally ran in the Cincinnati Business Courier on Friday, April 22, 2016. 



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