As our working population ages, many non-profit organizations are faced with approaching retirement of their Executive Director.  Most of these organizations don’t have a plan in place to handle the void these retirements will leave.  In order to make a smooth and successful transition they should be developing a succession plan.  All organizations, no matter their size, should be looking towards the future and ensuring the services they provide to the community will continue beyond their current leader.

If you look up the definition of succession planning, you’ll find “the practice of identifying and selecting talent to succeed incumbents in a company’s critical role”.  However, it is so much more than just having a pool of applicants to choose from.  It’s a process that ensures the organization has the breadth and depth of talent necessary to fulfill and continue its core values and mission.  Succession planning allows an organization to not only fill critical roles, but also to allow for knowledge transfer, continuity of culture, and the continued service to clients and customers.

Here are a few tips for a great succession plan.

  • Get the right people involved in the process.  Succession planning is not a one person job.  Get your Executive Director, Board of Directors and human resources department involved.  Develop a subcommittee of the board that will focus solely on succession planning.  Split up the responsibilities and make sure to have a committee chair.  Make sure to have regular meetings for this subcommittee.  When starting your planning process plan to meet monthly; once the plan is in place a quarterly meeting should be sufficient. 
  • Succession planning isn’t only about the Executive Director.  Of course you need to have a succession plan for your current leader, but don’t forget about all those other critical roles.  What would you do if your Controller left or a Program Director retired?  Would that department or program continue to run at full capacity?  Think beyond the top and look at the critical roles that are necessary to make your organization run smoothly and provide the best service to your community. 
  • Have a plan, set dates, set expectations, and determine who will do what.  Once you’ve set up your committee and put succession planning on the forefront, next you’ll want to have a plan in place.  Make sure to divvy up the responsibilities, set deadlines if necessary, and determine who has the authority to make decisions.  Determine who has the final say in the hiring of the replacement for these critical roles.  Usually the final authority will fall to the Executive Director, but, in some cases, the Board of Directors should have final say.  Laying all of this out right away will help the planning process go smoothly. 
  • Develop or review your job descriptions.  Once you’ve determine what the critical roles are, get to work on making sure you have well-developed job descriptions for each of these roles.  A well-developed job description will list the position’s key skills, responsibilities, performance metrics, competencies, and critical experience requirements.  Having a good job description will allow you to better determine what is needed to fill the open position and find the ideal candidate.  The job description should be reviewed regularly to make sure it accurately represents what the role requires. 
  • Assess your current staff and determine where your gaps are.  Now that you’ve gotten a committee together, have determined what your critical roles are, and have well-developed job descriptions; you need to look at your staff.  Are there staff members that show potential, who are your top performers?  Find these individuals and begin to groom them to take on these critical roles.  Continue to assess your staff to see if anyone new should be added to this list.  If you find gaps, then begin to look for these individuals that could fill those gaps and hire them. 
  • Develop a mentorship and/or training program focused on preparing staff to fill these critical roles.  If you are going to “hire from within” then make sure to develop your staff so they can best take on the new role.  The best way to do this is have a mentorship or training program.  Both can groom high performers for the critical roles within your organization.  Plus it helps with retention. 
  • Focus on retaining those high performers that will one day fill these critical roles.  Retention is important for any employee, but it is extremely important for those top performers.  These individuals will most likely be the next leaders of your organization, so you want to keep them.  Make sure they are engaged and know they are a valued member of the organization.  Perform “stay interviews”.  Ask them what makes them stay with the organization, what causes them frustration at work, what their career aspirations are, and what motivates them.  Then use this information to develop a plan to retain that staff member. 
  • Be prepared to hire two people to fill one open position.  Let’s face it, oftentimes in the non-profit world a lot of times the role a staff member initially started in isn’t what they currently do.  The roles are ever changing, as new programs are developed or positions are consolidated due to budget cuts; they’ve simply adapted over the years.  They’ve developed a very unique set of skills.  So when this critical role opens up it may be difficult to find that same set of skills.  Don’t be afraid to split that role into two.  It might be easier to fill the open position that way.  
  • Budget for additional costs.  Budget for the financial impact you’ll see from implementing a succession plan.  You may see an increase cost in recruitment, training, employee retention, and salaries.  It is best to plan that you’ll have to double up on staff in these critical roles for a period of time; increasing the salary for these roles. 
  • Continue to assess the plan, job descriptions, and your employees.  Succession planning is an ongoing process; there is no end to it.  You’ll need to assess and review the plan at least annually (I recommend quarterly); making sure it still fits the needs of the organization.  The plan should be reviewed at least annually.  You’ll want to review job descriptions at least annually to make sure they are accurate.  Most importantly, you’ll want to continue to assess your employee’s skills and abilities to make sure you have the staff necessary to have a successful succession plan.

 Having a succession plan will make sure your organization is around for years to come, giving you the ability to continue to serve your community and its needs.