Succession Planning is Still Important

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How an organization and its leadership undertakes executive level transition says a lot to other employees. It can make a big difference in general employee satisfaction and what might trigger a good employee to leave. A Board may not fully realize the fact that having a thoughtful and articulate plan in place about the organization’s future (Strategic, Succession, Compensation, Capital, etc.) speaks volumes to the general employee base.

Succession Planning is a term used in private and nonprofit sectors (less so with governmental entities) to describe the process that an organization, typically a Board of Directors, undertakes to plan for its next leader. Interestingly, with the term being common in leadership lingo, a limited number of organizations actually have a written Succession Plan.

How do we know this?

It is a question that our firm surveys groups about frequently. The responses often come back as:

  • Maybe
  • No
  • I don’t know
  • Yes – we’ve had a few meetings about it
  • Yes – it’s in my head
  • (and my favorite…) Yes – we talked about it once and someone has the notes somewhere.

An idea, wish, intention or concept does not truly constitute a solid Succession Plan. I find that less than 20% of the nonprofits KEES interacts with have a written Succession Plan that is widely understood by organizational leadership (Board and Executives) and could be accessed and implemented with ease. Note – often times the “emergency plan” (i.e. what to do when the ED gets hit by a bus or wins the lottery) is confused with the Succession Plan. The two can be related, but are actually entirely different.

A relevant and ideal Succession Plan should:

  • Have an overview of the below items, with specifics to be filled in at the time certain triggers occur.
  • Be reviewed and affirmed/updated regularly (every 2–3 years if the sitting leader will remain for a while; every 1–2 years as the leader gets closer to natural retirement).
  • Define the intent and wishes of the Board, at the time of update, to ensure future leadership understands the rationale for the recommendations.

Overview of Succession Planning elements:

  • An overall philosophy of leadership and the role of the Executive leader.
  • A clear statement of the Board’s role in finding, hiring, evaluating, growing and changing leadership.
  • An ideal timetable for a natural transition process to occur. (Having a 90-day buffer helps.)
  • A job description of the current Executive leader and all of the immediate, direct reports.
  • An organizational chart identifying the key functional areas of leadership, and which direct report or other key staff person “back-fills” the top Executive in these functions. Note: this could add another dimension to the plan if all/most of the top leadership is roughly in the same 5-year window of possible retirement and/or the same team has been in place for 15+ years.
  • Current thinking (point in time) about the organization’s greatest needs in the coming 3–5 years. This can be derived from Strategic Planning.

If your organization does not have a written Succession Plan in place, I urge you to have a conversation at the next Board meeting. Try to gain a commitment to invest time in addressing the points above. The Board may not be ready for a full Succession Planning process, but at least document the above six points and make sure the whole Board is on the same page. If the commitment is there to do more….ask the Governance Committee, Executive Committee, or ad hoc Committee to take this on as a special project (60-90 days with 2–3 meetings and follow up in between).

While your organization may not face an imminent retirement or departure of its top leader, Succession Planning is essential for the continuity and sustainability of your organization.

If you would like help with Succession Planning…we do that! Contact us directly at 888-687-3186 or, to discuss your organization’s specific Succession Planning needs.


This article is an update of a 2015 blog post.