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 final entry, and scroll to the end of the article for a full list of our interview participants.
Other articles in the series:
When it’s time for an executive transition, both departing and new leaders have an important role to play. We asked our interviewees what went well during their recent transitions and what they would have done differently. These conversations revealed successes, tensions, and recommendations that we synthesized below in tips for incoming and outgoing leaders.
Since leadership overlap was a recurring theme among our interviewees—and a frequently cited component of a successful transition—we also shared advice for that particular situation.
TIPS FOR INCOMING LEADERS
Expect some growing pains and bumps along the way. Even with the most successful transitions, there will naturally be challenging periods for all parties involved. As the new leader, it’s important that you approach the situation with realistic expectations and a plan for navigating rough patches.
Bob Bugert of the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust shared that both the incoming and outgoing leaders need a strong support system—including their colleagues and the board. Going through the transition can be stressful all around, so having people to lean on is critical.
Be patient. Just as important as a strong support system is a large store of patience throughout the process. We heard from incoming leaders that they approached the transition with the assumption of universal good intentions.
Remembering that everyone is working towards a bright future for your organization should help you navigate difficult moments with more understanding.
If there’s a leadership overlap with the outgoing leader:
Make sure roles and responsibilities are clearly delineated. The potential for confusion and ambiguity is one of the biggest challenges presented by a leadership overlap. Who is responsible for what tasks? The answer to this question needs to be clearly spelled out for everyone’s benefit.
At Milwaukee Public Museum, current Senior Vice President of Development Julie Quinlan Brame overlapped for several months with her predecessor Karen Spahn. At the beginning of this time, they discussed how to divide day-to-day duties. “We talked through the process and even made a spreadsheet that listed my roles, Karen’s roles, and what we were going to do together,” Julie explained.
“This made it clear to the staff and helped when they had questions. We didn’t want staff to feel like they were getting two different answers from two different people.”
Foster open communication with staff about the changes and the timeframe. As Julie Quinlan Brame and Karen Spahn demonstrated, transparency with staff contributes to a smooth transition. In our conversations, we heard about many variations in overlap length and division of responsibilities between the incoming and outgoing leaders.
Whatever you decide is best for your organization, all staff members need to understand what’s happening, when it’s happening, and how it may affect their position. Be deliberate about communicating with the staff and ensuring they are up-to-date on changes throughout the leadership overlap.
Learn as much as you can from the outgoing leader. Although navigating a leadership overlap can be difficult at times, the incoming leaders we spoke with were resoundingly thankful for the opportunity to learn from their predecessor.
Abigail Dillen, current President of Earthjustice, remarked on how useful it was to be able to speak completely candidly with former President Trip Van Noppen, try on her new role while he was still there, and watch his approach to curveballs thrown their way.
Feel empowered to make decisions and changes. While they wanted to learn from their predecessors, many of the incoming leaders we interviewed also discussed changes they wanted to make to culture and staffing, among other areas.
They counseled other new leaders to take ownership of their new position right from the start—even if the departing leader is still there. That means making key decisions and pushing forward your vision for the future.
Communicate to the board and outgoing leader if the leadership overlap isn’t working. Before Curt Soper assumed the Executive Director position at Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, he had some reservations about a leadership overlap with his predecessor Bob Bugert.
“It takes the right kind of people for that situation to work,” Curt explained. “When I first learned an overlap was the plan, in the back of my mind, I had some concerns. What if he doesn’t want to let go?” After getting to know Bob, Curt could tell that they would work well together.
If things don’t go as smoothly for you, remember that the purpose of leadership overlap is to put you in the strongest position possible to lead. If your day-to-day becomes fraught with tension, if disagreements are getting in the way of your work, if the arrangement is negatively impacting staff, you need to make a change.
Speak with the outgoing leader and the board, as appropriate, and decide on next steps. If needed, be ready to ask the outgoing leader to taper off sooner than planned.
TIPS FOR OUTGOING LEADERS
Give advanced notice to the board and staff if possible. Many of the outgoing leaders with whom we spoke had recently retired. All of these individuals emphasized the importance of giving the organization plenty of lead time before you transition out. While this isn’t always an option for leaders taking a new job, all outgoing executives should strive to give the board and staff adequate time to prepare.
Karen Spahn, former Senior Vice President of Development for the Milwaukee Public Museum, affirmed the need for advanced notice: “Anytime you can give enough time to allow the staff, board, CEO, and the person leaving to process it—that’s the best way to do it. You need enough time to make it work.”
Hand off important donor and community relationships. Beyond the board and staff, care should be taken to transition donor and community relationships in a thoughtful and timely way. How can you project confidence to funders and stakeholders during this period of change?
As the outgoing leader with a host of established relationships, this should be top of mind as you prepare to leave.
When Bob Bugert was wrapping up his time as Executive Director of Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, he made sure to introduce successor Curt Soper to key contacts. Curt, who did not have prior experience in the community, credits this knowledge transfer for his smooth transition to the Executive Director role.
Transfer knowledge to the incoming leader. Whether you’re able to do this in face-to-face conversations or through a series of documents, you are responsible for passing on institutional knowledge to your successor.
At Earthjustice, Trip Van Noppen began this knowledge transfer with Abigail Dillen as soon as possible: “Upon being chosen, I immediately brought Abbie into all sorts of processes that she knew about as a longtime member of the senior leadership of the organization but hadn’t been personally involved in, such as board nominations and financial management,” Trip explained.
If there’s a leadership overlap with the incoming leader:
Meet frequently with the incoming leader and maintain open communication channels. Throughout the overlap period, make a point of meeting with the incoming leader as much as possible, and speak openly and often.
We heard from many new leaders how helpful it was to have the departing leader aboard to share their knowledge and expertise. By building in time for collaboration, shadowing, and knowledge transfer, you can make the most of your overlap.
Put the organization’s interests ahead of your self-interest. While leadership overlaps were an overwhelmingly positive experience for the incoming and outgoing leaders we spoke with, many acknowledged that this situation can be tricky.
For your part, recognize that your opinions and desires can’t—and shouldn’t—come first. Sean Gerrity, former CEO and current Founder & Managing Director of American Prairie Reserve, summed it up this way:
“You are no longer the most important. The brand new CEO is more important because the first year is really hard. Everything has to be about supporting the new CEO, not keeping the former CEO happy.”
During the transition period, your role is to help usher in the next chapter. That means reinforcing boundaries, especially with staff who are used to going to you for advice, feedback, or decision making. You should also be prepared to step back if your presence is no longer adding value.
Leadership transitions present so much opportunity, but they can also be stressful and challenging to navigate. By putting the organization first, begin flexible, and preparing for the future, incoming and outgoing leaders can contribute to a smooth transition and a positive organizational outlook.
Thank you to the leaders who shared their succession planning experiences: