Can my organization properly respond to a succession emergency? Are we preparing emerging leaders to move up in the organization and fill future vacancies? Succession planning is a topic that keeps many nonprofit leaders up at night with questions like these.
In 2016, Campbell & Company interviewed over a dozen leaders in environmental and conservation organizations to explore challenges facing the sector. Succession planning emerged as a trending topic in these conversations, so we decided to dive deeper in 2018.
We spoke with 12 representatives—including board members, incoming leaders, and outgoing leaders—from five conservation-related organizations to learn about their experiences with succession planning and leadership development.
From these discussions, we developed a three-part blog series to share the insights and recommendations gathered. Please read on for the first entry, and scroll to the end of the article for a full list of our interview participants.
Other articles in the series:
At first glance, succession planning can appear to be a complex set of processes—and in some ways, it is. A well-developed succession plan will include codified procedures and formal documents, but it should also be an integrated part of organizational culture. So what does that look like?
In our discussions, several culture-related themes emerged. The organizations we spoke with experienced success in leadership transitions because succession planning is an ongoing conversation in their workplaces and on their management teams.
Below, we outline those key themes with examples and advice from our interviewees.
Give staff growth opportunities and identify emerging leaders.
We heard so much about the importance of challenging staff, providing opportunities for professional development, and watching to see who stands out. Whether through an established initiative or more informal means, building a pipeline of future decision makers is where succession planning begins.
Rick Johnson, Executive Director of the Idaho Conservation League, referenced his organization’s emerging leaders program and emphasized how central staff growth and development is to the culture there.
At the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Executive Director Curt Soper is also continually thinking about that next generation: “We’re not such a big staff that I can’t interact with all of the team and see them in action, see their strengths and weaknesses, understand their hopes and dreams for the future,” he explained. “I don’t want them to feel stuck where they are; I want them to be continually challenged.”
Make it clear when you have a staff member in mind for a leadership position.
Once you identify employees with promise, it’s critical to let them know that you recognize their potential. This came up time and again during our conversations—especially in the context of retaining talent and growing a pipeline of future leaders.
When Alison Fox began to emerge as a potential internal candidate for CEO of American Prairie Reserve, then-CEO Sean Gerrity took notice and shared this observation with the Board. George Matelich, Board Chair of APR, took this message to heart: “We made sure in our annual review with Ali to communicate that she was being watched as a potential leader.”
This kind of direct communication is essential to demonstrate confidence in emerging leaders and show them that they have a future at the organization.
Work with emerging leaders to build skills.
After establishing a candid dialogue with future leaders, the next step is helping them develop the necessary skills and competencies to advance. For some of our interviewees, this meant inviting internal candidates to board meetings or bringing them into high-level conversations with other stakeholders.
It also meant having open conversations about the strengths and weakness of emerging leaders. Every candidate will possess a different set of skills based on their background and previous work experiences. What areas will they need to focus on to get to the next level? And how can organizational leaders help them make that leap?
At Earthjustice, this skill building started early for current President Abigail Dillen. “Trip [former Earhjustice President] was very deliberate about mentoring me for the last eight years and even before I took a role that was directly reporting to him. I felt very seen, heard, and appreciated by him well before I ever worked for him,” she explained.
“He was extremely helpful to me in getting me resources and taking me into really important funder meetings from the start. I realized that the opportunities that he gave me throughout my career were pretty extraordinary.”
Cultivate a level of trust and openness among staff.
While supporting emerging leaders is a cornerstone of any effective succession plan, creating a trusting environment for transitioning leaders is just as important.
Development Director Sharon Lunz has been with Chelan-Douglas Land Trust for more than 16 years and plans to retire in 2019. When asked what recommendations she has for other organizations, she shared this advice:
“Make sure staff feel comfortable letting their own intentions be known and not at the last minute. I didn’t have any qualms about letting my intentions be known early. There has to be a level of trust in the organization that it’s safe to be open about your plans and timing. And we certainly have that here.”
This sentiment was a common thread through our conversations with leaders who had transitioned out of their organizations. Each felt comfortable alerting the board early on, providing extensive lead time which proved crucial to achieving a smooth transition.
View leadership transition as a catalyst for positive change.
Major organizational changes can be hard. They take time, patience, and flexibility for the staff and board to adapt. The leaders we spoke with acknowledged this reality, but they also saw the opportunity that comes with leadership change.
At Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Curt Soper shared that he uses planned staff transitions as an opportunity to consider whether the structure of the position is still right for the organization’s needs. Before searching for a successor, they may redesign the position or distribute some of the responsibilities to staff members who are ready for a new challenge.
Rick Johnson of Idaho Conservation League believes that his organization is strong enough across all levels to benefit from a succession, rather than be hobbled by it. They have prepared for change, embedded it in their culture, and are ready to use it as a catalyst for further growth.
Strong succession planning begins with an organizational culture that values leadership development and fosters ongoing conversation about leadership transition. Embedding succession planning into the DNA of your organization isn’t fast or easy, but making intentional shifts will pay off in the long run.
Thank you to the leaders who shared their succession planning experiences: