Ep 16. – Overcoming Resistance to Succession Planning: Broadening the Lens

In this Lead. Learn. Thrive. podcast episode Tom Adams speaks with Vince Keane, President and CEO of Unity Health Care about overcoming resistance to succession planning.

Tom Adams and Vince Keane

Vince Keane has led Unity Health Center in Washington DC for almost twenty-eight years. From an initial focus on health care for homeless individuals and families, Unity has grown from a $4m operation to $100m. Three years ago, Vince and his Board and the executive team began succession planning.

Vince observed about this process: “As a federally qualified health center, I knew we were expected to have a succession plan. Yet the topic made both my executive team and Board very anxious. Over time we all got more comfortable talking about the need for leader development and continuity. The biggest contributor to feeling more comfortable was the shift of focus from CEO leadership succession to organizational leadership succession.”

A retired CEO in the community development field recently led a workshop for peer executives on succession planning. He encouraged them all to get started early – 3 to 5 years before departure – on succession planning. He admitted being unable to do that during his retirement because he was reluctant to let go and trust the Board with something that impacted him so personally.

Shifting the focus to organizational succession does not remove an executive’s concern about planning for retirement or moving on. What it does do, when done well, is to broaden the conversation and make it about how the mission of the organization will continue. When focusing on the board leaders, executive team and staff for sustained success it is a much different discussion than how we keep our CEO here as long as possible or encourage them to plan for succession. If there are performance concerns about a CEO or other leader or a factor that makes concern about premature departure real, these concerns are best addressed before succession planning is launched.

There are numerous reasons why organizations working for change and a better world are moving away from relying on a single hero leader or small core team to get everything done. Too many organizations have felt the pain of over-reliance on one or two leaders and had shocking wake-up calls when they departed. The case for building a leadership team among the board and staff is quite compelling. Seasoned leaders know it makes sense because they are tired and want to lighten their load. Millennial age leaders embrace shared leadership because it is the air they grew up in and what they expect. It is more fun and supports the balanced life they seek.

Our words sometimes trigger emotions that block progress. Conversations about household finances and budgets can cause a host of other issues. Succession planning is like that. Some leaders never get beyond the word. Esther Newman, the former executive of Leadership Montgomery, committed to developing an emergency backup plan for herself and her team at a succession planning workshop. Two years later she called to say she was stuck and needed help getting her emergency plan done. After a couple of hours of discussion and the plan was mostly completed, she smiled and observed: “My goodness, I don’t know why I waited so long to get to this.”

Esther, like many of us, can get distracted when a task looks overwhelming or might involve something we would rather avoid. When all the leaders of an organization decide together to focus on how to prepare for planned and unplanned leader transitions, this work is not about any individual. Success becomes a shared goal.

Here are five actions that will help your organization advance organizational succession planning and get beyond some of the barriers most organizations face:

  1. Do a “trust check” to make sure the relationships among the Board, CEO, and management team are working. If there are performance or communications issues or a culture that does not support the focus on organizational succession, call time out and address these issues before launching succession planning.
  2. Enroll a core team of champions for expanding the leader development culture and the attention to leader continuity for the organization. Consider learning more about organizational succession planning or getting some coaching on the topic for the CEO, involved board leaders and managers if needed to make the commitment to this process more solid.
  3. Review what is already in place and decide what will deepen the roots and impact of your succession planning. If this is the first effort, set limited goals and look for an experienced guide to support the process. Commit to completing the first phase in three to four months so it does not drag on and become an energy drain. If follow-up to past efforts, decide how to best make leader development and succession planning part of your annual schedule.
  4. Pay attention to what is considered the basics of organizational succession planning:
    • Written emergency backup plans for the CEO and managers which prepare for unplanned absences by appointing a temporary stand-in;
    • Written succession policy that lays out the organization’s commitment and philosophy of leader development and how planned CEO transitions will occur;
    • Expand attention to leader and talent development for board and staff, with emphasis on positions that are critical to mission and organizational sustainability;
    • If a leadership transition is imminent in next few years, make sure there is agreement on timing and process for filling the position and completing a successful hand-off.
  5. Make attention to organizational leader succession part of your annual strategic and sustainability planning, so it is natural and expected.

Vince Keane added: “Everyone working in a nonprofit gives generously of themselves to get the mission done. We owe it to each other to make sure the mission and work we have been doing continues. Attention to organizational succession and sustainability makes that more likely.”

For more information on Raffa’s succession and executive transition services including this and other podcasts, a just-published case study on internal succession in Nonprofit Quarterly, click here. For more on these and related topics, read The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide by Tom Adams available on Amazon.com. To hear this and other Raffa podcasts, click here.


The Lead. Learn. Thrive podcast series grew out of our Raffa Learning Community effort and features interviews with interesting nonprofit and private sector leaders and those who help them Do More. If you would like to suggest a topic or a guest for an upcoming episode, please email jimena@raffa.com and include “podcast” in the email subject line.

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