Is succession planning an outdated concept?


Succession planning often focuses on key leaders in the organisation. But in a changing business environment, planning for the future needs to be far more strategic and widespread, argues Miecha Ranea Forbes.

In a perfect world, your executive director or CEO would give plenty of notice about their planned departure, helping to select and train their successor. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Every organisation experiences leadership change. Leaders may leave due to planned circumstances, such as retirement, or their departure could be sudden and surprising, due to an illness, family emergency, or even their death.

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Sometimes, several directors resign simultaneously and unexpectedly, leaving multiple departments without leaders at the helm.

Non-profits, in particular, are experiencing a big demographic shift and the internal shifts are more common around periods of political uncertainty. Therefore, all organisations should plan for smooth, thoughtful leadership transitions for numerous positions, across a variety of scenarios.

Plan strategically
Historically, businesses have focused on succession planning, but this concept is outdated. It refers to the process of replacing a specific leader, typically someone at the top such as the CEO.

But the organisation’s top spot isn’t the only essential position requiring a transition plan. If and when other leaders leave, which could include the chief financial officer or chief marketing officer, or a key department director, there needs to be a strategic plan in place to seamlessly replace them, as well.

Organisations would be well-served to think more holistically about leadership transitions.

Their goal should be ensuring stability, sustainability, and continuity if (and when) any leaders leave the organisation. Additionally, they should be constantly developing talent within the organisation, ensuring a robust leadership pipeline for the future.

I’d argue that “intentional pathway planning” is the new succession planning. This updated term and concept refer to the effort of preparing for and managing leadership change – for multiple leadership positions, not just the top spot.

Intentional pathway planning is more than just figuring out how to replace a single role or person. It’s a holistic approach that considers every step of hiring and growing effective leaders.

Every organisation’s circumstances are different – whether that’s their structure, skills gaps or goals – but all should proactively build strong leadership pipelines, train internal talent for higher level roles, and resolve any knowledge and/or diversity gaps.

Here are some tips for successful “intentional pathway planning”:

Think holistically: Understand your organisation’s leadership needs and business goals. What are you trying to accomplish? What type of talent, skills and personality traits do you need to get there? What are your organisation’s knowledge and diversity gaps, and how can you resolve them?

Prioritise this initiative: Other projects, tasks, and initiatives will always beckon, but consider this a priority. Ensure that someone on the leadership team is championing this effort, embedding it in the budget and strategic goals, and staying accountable.

Plan for any contingency: Unlike succession planning, intentional pathway planning addresses future departures across multiple roles, including executive director, high-level staff positions (such as development director, public affairs director), and board roles. Since each of these positions requires different experience and skills, develop plans to address all possible vacancy scenarios.

Respond to generational trends: Millions of baby boomers are retiring (and preparing to retire). This could mean a drain not just on top-level positions, but also other senior leaders. Prepare to transition multiple leadership roles while also maintaining functionality, stability, and sustainability.

Meanwhile, the next generation of emerging leaders are vocal about wanting more professional development opportunities and expect their employers to invest in their training. Many see professional development and training as a key ingredient in the employee value proposition.

Develop emerging leaders: Proactively prepare emerging leaders to ensure a robust pipeline for the future. Provide employees with consistent, meaningful training and development opportunities. Mentor and coach them. Create individual development plans based on each employee’s goals.

Provide additional responsibilities and opportunities to help foster a deep bench of future leaders. Investing in mid-manager/emerging leader groups makes them more loyal and more likely to stay with the organisation for the long-term (or boomerang back if they leave for any reason).

Promote internal talent: There are significant benefits to promoting from within, including capturing institutional knowledge, improving team morale, and increasing retention and engagement. Having consistent teams serves customers and clients better. Additionally, it’s less costly and time-consuming to promote from within than it is to conduct an external search.

Know when to look externally: Sometimes, it’s necessary to expand beyond your current team. Recognise that you might not have the skill sets, experience, diversity, and other criteria for the role(s) you need to fill. There may be valid reasons to conduct an external search, and bring in outside perspectives and skills, especially if there are gaps among your internal team. Additionally, external hires can help increase diversity within your organisation.

Anticipate your organisation’s biggest challenges: Identify current—and potential—challenges that your organisation faces (or may face in the future). Consider the types of leaders that will help you overcome these challenges, navigate obstacles, and meet or exceed goals. What skills, qualities, and personality traits will be most effective and inspire positive change?

Communicate clearly and effectively: Promptly communicate any leadership change to internal and external audiences, including staff, donors, media, board members, customers, members, and other key stakeholders. Regardless of the circumstances, emphasise that the transition will be seamless, the new leader(s) were thoughtfully selected, and you’re committed to ensuring stability, sustainability, and continuity for the organisation and its key constituents.

Leadership transitions can leave an organisation vulnerable, so it’s tremendously important to be prepared for a variety of scenarios, with strategic plans in place to manage any change in leadership. That way, regardless of the circumstance, your transitions will, hopefully, be smooth, seamless, and successful.

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