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Roadblocks to Succession Planning for Nonprofits

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

While we all love stability and security, your leadership roles, whether in an organizational, community or family setting, are always changing. At the same time, those who lead the places and people important to you won't always stay the same.

What if you knew the exact date every person you managed or interacted with was going to leave their current role? What if you knew the exact date you would be leaving your current role(s)? Would that change how you structured your interactions or work?

A strong succession plan doesn’t provide the exact date, it does help you weather the challenges of leadership changes, both expected and unexpected.

Let's explore some common bumps to planning ahead for leadership transitions and how we might smooth them out.

Expect Some Roadblocks Along the Way

Here are some common roadblocks that may arise when you begin to create a succession plan.

One: A lack of alignment on a successor.

Sometimes the board and executive director are not aligned on what type of leader the successor should be. Perhaps the executive director has spent time cultivating a promising staff member, but the board decides they are not the right person for the job. Aligning the board and executive director on a vision for the future of the organization can translate into alignment on what skills and abilities are needed for a successor to execute on that vision.

Two: It feels like extra work.

Creating a strong succession plan takes effort, focus and intention - and this is sometimes hard to give to a task without immediate benefits. By making succession planning a priority, setting benchmarks and targets, and providing leadership bandwidth to implement the plan, boards can go a long way to alleviating this bump.

Three: It’s difficult to get clarity about the future of the work.

Leaders always face uncertainties about the future of their roles or strategic decisions that need to be made. The clarity to plan for future leadership needs is impossible without honest, direct conversations about which objectives are absolutely essential for the organization to achieve versus which are worth pursuing yet less essential.

Four: It’s hard for leaders to have enough self-awareness to do this.

A solid succession plan hinges on leadership’s ability to honestly assess their own strengths and knowledge gaps as they relate to the organization's strategic plan and future vision. Yet, doing this will truly help guide decision-making and ensure resources are allocated effectively in the event of a leadership transition.

Five: There’s limited opportunity for staff to give and receive feedback.

Keeping lines of communication open between staff members and leadership is critical. This helps prevent leadership opportunities or stretch assignments from being pushed to staff members who don’t actually want leadership roles, and helps clarify what is important to the lifeblood of the organization and those it serves. As an added bonus, it also helps foster a culture of trust and continuous improvement across the organization.

Don’t Risk Unraveling Your Hard Work

Even if your organization has recently made a smooth leadership transition, you still need a comprehensive succession plan in place. Operating without one is like knitting a blanket, but not finishing it off. It leaves the risk of one loose thread unraveling all your hard work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this concept. Have you created a succession plan at your workplace? Have you considered creating one in another situation where you are a leader? Why or why not?

As always, if you or someone on your team is looking for leadership coaching, please consider reaching out to me. I'd love to connect and learn more about how we can work together!

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