According to a study by the Bridgespan Group in 2006, the nonprofit sector will experience a shortage of 84,000 leaders. A follow-up study in 2009 reported this gap is growing despite the 2008-09 recession.
Author Tom Adams addresses these statistics and common challenges below that prevent us from grooming enough new leaders to enter the pipeline, such as:
treating people as disposable commodities,
colluding with funders and government agencies about what it truly costs to run an effective organization,
preferring hero leaders to ordinary leaders,
romanticizing the private sector’s pool of leaders,
and overlooking potential leaders who are ethnically and age-diverse.
We must overcome these obstacles and embrace the opportunity to purposefully lead our organizations beyond the person who currently holds the CEO title. After all, since increased impact does come from successful transitions, preparing leaders for their jobs and retaining them are central to nonprofit sustainability.
Adams shares six more reasons why succession planning should be on your next board agenda
We interviewed Tom Adams about his book The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide and uncovered some essential conclusions about great transition planning:
1: Yield better organizational results by championing leadership continuity
CausePlanet: We appreciate your establishing the irrefutable connection between effective leadership and organizational results. What is the most important step in broaching the succession planning topic if it hasn’t already been introduced by the incumbent CEO?
Tom Adams: First make sure a positive working relationship and trust exist between the executive and board chair/board. Without trust, this easily goes off rail. A second early step is for the board chair/champion to understand this is bigger than the CEO–it is about leadership continuity for the executive management team, key managers, staff and board.
2: Build a culture of consistency
CausePlanet: What’s the best way to get the board and staff past thinking of succession planning as a “replacement plan” and more to considering the comprehensive approach of building a culture of a consistently well-led nonprofit?
Tom Adams: Ask them to reflect on why they do the work. What motivates passion for this mission? What have they co-created? What is their legacy? What actions are needed to ensure this capacity endures and is sustainable? Best practice involves initiating a sustainability and succession planning process together.
3: Work out the values to inform your succession policy
CausePlanet: Will you please explain the importance of a succession policy and the role it plays in the overall succession plan?
Tom Adams: There is a lot of emotion and urgency when an executive announces plans to depart. It is better to work out the values and procedures to guide the transition and search before the transition occurs.
CausePlanet: In phase four, the implementation stage, of a succession plan, you provide a list of immediate changes possible for most organizations before a CEO departs. Some of them include updating the website and communications materials or filling strategic positions before the new CEO is hired. Wouldn’t these be changes better implemented by the new CEO who will live with these changes?
Tom Adams: It depends on when succession planning occurs and if it is combined with sustainability planning. If planning begins two to four years before departure, these investments increase capacity and reduce possible distractions for the new CEO. If departure is in the next year, then most key hiring can wait until the new CEO is on board. This is all situational.
5: Overcome common barriers and misconceptions
CausePlanet: What’s the most common barrier to or misconception about succession planning that prevents nonprofits from engaging in the steps to begin a plan?
Tom Adams: There is a normal fear of misunderstanding–the executive feeling forced out or the board feeling the executive is concerned about confidence in her/him. So it is easy to put off. The second barrier is a narrow understanding of the benefits. Succession planning ought to be more than a check-the-box completion of some boilerplate documents. It is a strategic process that advances mission effectiveness and the leader development culture. When seen more broadly, it is still hard to find time. With the CEO and board champions, it happens and the value becomes clear.
6: Make inclusiveness a way of thinking, working and leading
CausePlanet: Having recently added Embracing Cultural Competency and Cause for Change: The Why and How of Millennial Engagement to our summary library, we applaud your chapters that emphasize an examination of ethnically and age-diverse leadership candidates. What do you want most current leaders to know about diversity’s connection to effective leadership?
Tom Adams: Effective leaders and organizations are connected to the communities they serve. To do this well requires diversity and inclusiveness among leaders and staff. Differences advance creativity and increase mission impact. It is too easy for older white folks to say, “We tried.” The older white folks are the privileged ones who have enormous opportunity and benefits. They have a business and moral obligation to embrace and advocate for diversity and inclusiveness. While it goes beyond race, ethnicity, gender and age, it needs to start there and become a way of thinking and working and leading.
It is obvious transition planning affects every aspect of leading a nonprofit, such as the invisible yet highly impactful forces of culture and values. And yet, organizational impact has the most to gain or lose from our willingness to address leadership transitions. We all work so diligently for the incremental success we achieve toward our causes; don’t let lack of transition planning put your efforts in jeopardy. Let these 84,006 reasons be enough to get you and your board putting a plan in place. Your cause deserves no less.