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Succession Planning

It's Not Just for Your Board Anymore

You may have a great succession plan for your volunteer leaders, but are you setting the stage for the day your CEO moves on? Staff succession planning is often overlooked, but you can get momentum going by doing something simple: Talk about it.

"We are mission driven!" How many times have you heard or said that? It sounds good and it's typically genuine, but I believe it can also be another way of saying, "We ignore our own needs!"

Being "mission driven" can be an overwhelmingly powerful force that deters associations from looking inward. Leaders, volunteers, and staff often share a general sense that if they focus on mission, everything will take care of itself. I believe this is true with one task in particular: succession planning. While association boards are often well prepared for succession in volunteer leadership positions, succession plans for staff leaders are often overlooked.

Especially in an organization focused on a mission and service to others, it can be challenging to take time to focus on staff development and leadership transitions. One of the biggest obstacles to tackling that challenge sounds easy but is remarkably difficult: talking about it.

It's OK to Talk About Succession
It's rare to go through a single day without seeing an article or hearing a news story about the baby boomers retiring. So, guess what, gen Xers and millennials? We can't say we weren't warned about an impending drain on expertise in our organizations. What are we going to do about the loss of this long experience and deep knowledge?

The first step is to recognize that this is not a taboo subject. We should talk about succession in the C- suite. No one wants to appear to be pushing anyone out the door, but the CEO will retire one day, and for many associations that day is coming soon. Ignoring that fact won't change anything; it will just make the transition harder to handle. While the CEO's departure is clearly the most significant, a staff succession plan should include all senior roles and consider what skills are needed and who on staff may be positioned to move into those jobs.

To prime the pipeline for the longer term, associations should give opportunities to younger staff and show them how they can be a part of the organization's future. New hires should understand their roles within the association and, most important, what their roles could be. Turnover among workers is higher than it used to be—I've been with five associations myself in the last 20 years—but I believe there is a real deficit in efforts to make a case for a long-term future with an organization, and that's why so many young people put in a few years of work and then leave. No one is talking about why they should stay.

An Example
I am lucky to work in an organization where the board of directors and CEO and have made staff development and succession planning top priorities. On a staff of 20, almost half have the CAE credential or are studying to take the exam within the next two years. We are making strides in transferring knowledge and sharing ideas to ensure the continued success of our almost 100-year-old association. The CEO has drafted a succession plan, which was approved by the executive committee,

and has committed a team to work on identifying and defining our staff core competencies and future needs. This team will then work to assess where we are and where we should be related to staff expertise we will need in the future.

This plan does not guarantee anyone a permanent job, and we have avoided creating expectations among younger staff about a certain next step on their career ladder. We're finding ways to keep all staff better informed and are transferring knowledge through everyday processes. This way, all staff will be better prepared when our CEO retires or if a senior staff member leaves unexpectedly.

Three Steps
Here are three ideas to get the conversation about staff succession planning started in your organization:

  1. Clarify your internal core competencies. Do senior staff know what competencies are expected at each level within the organization? Are they telling anyone?
  2. Create an organizational culture that values knowledge-sharing. Do new hires understand that sharing information and expertise will help them succeed? Are senior staff evaluated and rewarded for sharing ideas and mentoring others?
  3. Talk about drafting a simple operational plan, which supports your organization's strategic plan, focused on continuous knowledge transfer and succession planning. As you ensure that your mission is being achieved, are you also ensuring that your future staff needs will be met? Are all staff being developed in core areas so they can evolve in their roles or change roles as needed?

You don't have to do everything at once. Just start discussions. Gary M. Bolinger, CAE, the longtime CEO at my association, has said his job is almost entirely about risk management in one form or another. Talking about succession and creating leadership development processes are ways to minimize risk as the organization's C-suite baby boomers approach retirement.

There's no doubt: Associations will lose a lot of expertise when these leaders leave the workforce, but they'll lose less if staff make time to talk to one another, share knowledge, and start making changes to ensure smart succession planning.

Jennifer B. Briggs, CAE