Ep 17. – Leader Development and Succession Planning: Building to Last

In this Lead. Learn. Thrive. podcast episode, Tom Adams discusses how leader development and succession planning go together. With Julie Meyer, the Executive Director of the Next Step Public Charter School in Washington DC and Rachael Gibson, a senior consultant with Raffa, you will learn the benefits of both.

Rachael Gibson, Tom Adams, and Julie Meyer

Some boards and management teams are ready when a major leadership transition occurs. Some are not.  The difference has huge consequences for the organization. Boards and staff who are surprised by leadership transitions face both potential disruptions to the organization and unnecessary anxiety for board and staff. Services and mission usually suffer.

Boards and staff who prepare for leadership transition are poised to adjust and adapt so there is minimal to no negative consequence for mission work. To the contrary, for organizations who prepare well, leadership transition often advances mission capacity. And prepared organizations have leaders with less anxiety and are less likely to experience undesired resignations and turnover.

Ongoing and intentional attention to succession planning and leadership continuity is key for nonprofits and for-profits to succeed and be better prepared for leadership transitions. Succession planning can mean different things to different leaders. It is helpful to agree on what your organization means. It also works best, as noted by last month’s podcast guest Vince Keane of Unity Health Services, when the focus of succession planning is the organization and not exclusively about the executive (click here).

What can boards and managers do to prepare for leadership transitions? Drawing from experience with many organizations and transitions, we have identified three paths that seem to work. Our June podcast with Julie Meyer, Executive Director of The Next Step Public Charter School in Washington, DC, and Rachael Gibson, a senior consultant with Raffa who supported the Next Step Board and managers in succession planning, illustrates these three paths.

1. The executive and board have decided they need each other and are committed to being effective partners to lead the organization together. The Next Step Charter School grew over 12 years with Julie as executive from serving 75 students to a day and evening program serving 400 students. Over those years, the Board’s role evolved from minimal functioning to a governing board fully engaged and co-leading the development of the school with Julie and the management team.

The development of an effective board-executive partnership is not an accident. Success requires an executive who believes a strong board is in both the organizations and her best interest. It also requires board leaders who are willing to learn about their roles, adhere to boundaries and agreements about roles, and be open to change in the board-executive relationship as the organization matures.

2.  The executive and the board are deliberate about leader development and the investments required to fully engage and develop both the management team and the board. Successful businesses, large and small, invest heavily in leader development because it is profitable. For example, of the last few CEOs of UPS, one started his career there as a truck driver and another as a part-time employee in the warehouse. As nonprofits, we sometimes struggle to decide to invest time and money in leader development.

The Next Step executive and board decided five years ago to expand the management team from the executive and two principals to a group of six. Meyer explains the reason for this investment this way: “We had grown rapidly and the siloed approach of each principal paying attention only to their school was limiting our programming and administrative capacity. To serve our students well, we needed a leadership team with additional and different skills and a commitment to the whole school. Besides increasing the team through hires and promotions, the board supported me in engaging an external coach to work with us individually and as a team. This paid great dividends in helping us shape our culture around leadership and how we led the school. The Board leaders took similar actions to add needed skills and connections to the Board and in paying attention to nurturing and development of board leadership for the future.”

3.  Succession planning is ongoing. Leadership transition planning starts early. Meyer comments: “Our Board and I began talking about succession planning three years ago.  I attended Raffa’s Next Steps workshop (not related to Charter School) (OR “name coincidental”) where my thinking about succession, sustainability and transition was broadened. As I debriefed with the Board, we agreed we ought to make succession planning a priority. I had no imminent plan to leave my position, but also knew I would not stay there for 20 years. I knew the school would need fresh leadership not too far in the future. I was glad the Board saw succession planning as important for the organization and not solely about me. We considered doing this planning on our own without help. Wisely, I think, we decided not to do it alone. We got a much richer and more useful product as a result.”

Succession planning in this situation involved both the Board and the management team. Rachael Gibson, lead consultant explains: “We started with the management team. We asked each member to identify their key functions and relationships and who might carry them out if they were out for an unplanned absence. The managers found this very helpful in thinking about their jobs and the people who reported to them. In a school where absences directly impact students, the managers quickly saw the benefits from this work and embraced it. Similarly, the Board was pleased to see the results from the work of the managers and did their own work to spell out processes for a planned or unplanned departure of the executive.”

Meyer added: “These conversations about how we handle my planned departure when it occurs gave the Board a great opportunity to begin thinking about their choices when the time came to fill my position. So earlier this year when I advised the Board I would be exiting my position in 2018, they had these earlier discussions and a written succession policy to guide them in planning my transition with me.”

There are no guarantees in any transition. From a risk management perspective, leaders and organizations who consistently pay attention to leadership transitions increase the odds of smoother transitions and reduce the likelihood of drama and trauma for the board, staff and those served.

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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