Succession Planning – A proactive tool to meet business and organization needs while delivering social impact

Megan-Lee Meredith and Harold Tessendorf

September 2021

The disruption that COVID-19 has caused all organizations has brought succession planning again to the fore.  This is true of all organizations, irrespective of whether they are organized as for-profits, non-profits, cooperatives, or government agencies.  It is true of organizations that serve urban and rural communities and applies whether their key personnel are paid staff or volunteers. 

Over the past 18 months, leaders and managers have resigned or retired earlier than planned, either due to the slowdown in business, through personal choice, or because of changing life and family demands.  This has left their colleagues to assume more of the workload.  Many of those who remain in organizations wonder how much longer they can maintain their frantic work pace given the work stress that they have inherited.  The viability of many organizations is threatened by this reliance on a limited pool of key staff.   The current and looming generational shift in leadership requires that all organizations create, or at least revisit, their succession plans. 

We first became aware of the phrase Succession Planning in 2010 when it became one of the hot topics to hit the conference circuit.  It challenged Boards and Senior executives to consider how they would respond to the planned or unexpected departure of senior leadership while minimizing any disruption that the organization might experience.

We define Succession Planning as the deliberative process that owners, trustees, and the senior executives of businesses, non-profits, cooperatives, and government agencies use to identify and groom candidates to assume roles currently performed by these organizations’ founders, current leaders, and key managers.  Such plans address not only generational succession (through planned retirement), but also emergency succession, when changes in life circumstances or moral failure result in the swift departure of key individuals.   Succession plans identify, amongst others, key leadership roles in the organization, outline the process the organization will follow to replace key people, and name those units within the organization responsible for executing its succession policy. 

Senior leaders continue to be responsible for succession planning at their organizations. It is a critical investment in the organization’s human capital.  When they make this investment, senior leaders ensure the organization’s ongoing viability and relevance. 

In the course of our work, we have noticed that Directors and Executives often tend to shy away from this topic. Some remain too caught up in crisis management, and so do not have the time nor the bandwidth to engage in succession planning.  Others feel insecure in their roles and tend to perceive any discussion about succession as an attempt to replace them.  Or they experience it as a reminder of their own mortality and that their involvement with the organization will end at point in the future.  Unfortunately, the failure to engage in succession planning will only put their organization at risk.  It will force the organization onto the defensive when the inevitable succession crisis hits. 

Does it have to be this way?  We say: No, it does not. 

What if we instead saw succession planning as a proactive tool – as the ability to strategically engage the senior leadership (Partners, Directors and Chief Executives)? 

Our experience with organizations that have proactively created a succession plan is that their overall performance improves.  We saw how succession planning allowed their executives to focus on medium-term strategic issues, including program and product development and delivery.  Once these executives knew and were confident that their work would continue even if something unforeseen were to happen to them, then it made them more intentional about empowering and mentoring their direct reports.  These senior and middle level managers developed the confidence and experience they needed to assume more senior positions when that time arrived.  All of this served these organizations well after their Chief Executive’s planned departure.    The same can be true at your organization.    

While the mainstream approach to succession planning focuses primarily on succession at the highest levels of the organization, we argue that it also needs to include all levels of the organization, especially its middle management.  A point in case was a recent conversation we had with the senior director of a well-established, employee-owned company.  He mentioned that a significant number of their middle managers are set to retire in the next five years.  This will result in much of their work migrating up to senior management unless the company creates and implements a plan to recruit and train a new generation of managers, either from outside the business or by grooming candidates from within. 

We have written more about the importance and aspects of succession planning throughout our book Social Enterprise as Peacebuilding. More information about this book can be found at  https://www.amazon.com/Social-Enterprise-Peacebuilding-Megan-Lee-Meredith-ebook/dp/B09BJZBFXY/

Succession planning is a useful tool to identify key leadership roles throughout the organization.  It also provides the organization’s leadership with the opportunity to explore how these generational shifts will allow employees and volunteers to assume even greater ownership of their organizations.  We will return to these topics in future articles.      

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