Planning for Success(ion)

Everywhere one looks these days we are inundated with reminders that large numbers of nonprofit organizations will, in the next 5-7 years, be looking to replace their chief executive officers. Some surveys estimate that fully 95% of NPOs will shortly be going through this kind of leadership transition. To familiarize yourself with the depth of this crisis, I recommend spending some time on the websites of BoardSource, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and Bridgespan, to name a few. In each case, it becomes clear that not only will the nonprofit world be facing a serious leadership challenge before they know it but for the most part, few organizations have even begun to contemplate a potential successor or lay out a process for doing so.

Each of the above referenced sites and several others have done a nice job of outlining what a succession planning process should look like. One of my favorite resources in this regard can be found at: https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/leadership-development/nonprofit-ceo-transitions-resource-center

But discussions of what to do, fail to get at the underlying reasons for this crisis. And until we do that, our chances for “successful succession planning” are limited. In my view there are a number of reasons that not-for-profits fail to get out ahead of this issue. Some are technical: lack of staff capacity, economic considerations, unanticipated departures, and the presence of too many other things on the priority list. But in many cases, to borrow from the writings of Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, this problem is not technical at all; it is adaptive. In their work The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (https://www.amazon.com/Practice-Adaptive-Leadership-Changing-Organization/dp/1422105768), Heifetz and Linsky point out that we cannot fix adaptive problems with technical solutions. In other words, the nonprofit leadership succession planning crisis is not the result of boards and CEOs not knowing what to do. Nor can it be addressed by simply going through a checklist of best practices.

To begin to resolve this issue many long-serving CEOs and their boards must acknowledge one of the deep dark secrets or, what Jim Collins calls the “brutal facts,” of succession planning. Simply stated, many executives are reticent to contemplate the prospect of their own departure. And many boards are happy not to have to deal with the painful work of replacing an executive, conducting a search, and myriad related matters. In some cases, succession planning is an admission of mortality. For others, despite the more than occasional headaches, power is alluring and tough to abandon. Leaders derive an enormous amount of tangible and psychic rewards from their work. The perks of power seem to conspire against the creation of a thoughtful approach to transitioning and succession planning.  Having savored the limelight, veteran leaders, both volunteer and professional, are often reticent to make room for others, convincing themselves of their own irreplaceability.

And it is not just bald-faced ego that makes succession planning a challenge. The pervasiveness of “founders’ syndrome” haunts more than a few nonprofit organizations. Long term leaders, who have devoted incalculable amounts of energy, treasure, and self sacrifice over the years, often cannot face the prospect of handing over the reins. Many executives feel entitled to extend their tenures as long as they feel they are making a difference. This kind of personal possessiveness is reminiscent of Louis XIV’s infamous pronouncement, “l’etat c’est moi.”

The realities often are that, as Jay Conger and David Nadler observed more than a dozen years ago in the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Not wishing to contemplate the end of their careers, some [executives] postpone the succession process as long as they can. These individuals seldom mentor others and prefer protégées of lesser capabilities…” Conger and Nadler further note what many nonprofit leaders are hard-pressed to admit, namely that “succession is an emotional issue for many,” often leading to a variety of “non-productive behaviors.”

Addressing nonprofit CEOs specifically, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation noted that, “Nonprofit executives must be willing and able to let go … These executives must relinquish an all-too-common vision of heroic leadership, in which they valiantly and alone confront almost impossible demands on their time, emotions, and energy.”

Leadership is a give and take, in which leaders both contribute and receive something in the process. A willingness on the part of boards and executives to acknowledge and confront the human issues that are often the real obstacles to effective succession planning, must precede any kind of pragmatic or technical response.

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