The Real “S” Word

For some reason, succession is a dirty word. Why?

Because we are a passionate, emotional group of people.

And we tend to take things personally.

The reality?

To engage in succession planning means you and your organization are thinking through the inevitable – what will happen when a certain individual is no longer there.

It means thinking through the process to ensure the new person has the experience and skills to sustain the organization…and in a perfect world, take it to the next level.

Let me pause here for the uncomfortable truth.

What this might insinuate to those currently filling the seats is perhaps they don’t have the skills and experience to manage the organization right now. And it hurts.

To this I say…you need to get over it. Succession planning is about position. It’s not about specific personnel. And it’s certainly not personal.

Succession planning is not only a good practice – it’s a best practice – and it means you and your organization are doing the obligatory work necessary to ensure sustainability into the future, no matter who sits in the seats.

With this comes a harsh reality for many of us.

Nobody is indispensible.

If an organization has healthy and functional systems in place, then the people in and out of even the highest level of seats cannot make or break an organization.

Are they valuable? Absolutely. Do they alone define success or failure? No. And they shouldn’t.

The truth, of course, is that many of us get a good dose of self-gratification in believing the organization simply couldn’t survive without our unique skills, charms and expertise.

Few of us have the heart to say it, but I’ll be honest. As an executive director I cared deeply about my organization, yet there was a small piece of me that wanted people to struggle just a bit without me.

Because then it would validate all of my hard work, not to mention the sweat and tears that went into my time there. But I also knew this was my own issue of self-confidence, and my own need to be validated.

And I also knew it would be terrible for the organization. And so I got over it.

Having one person with this kind of power is a sign of organizational dysfunction. The focus becomes keeping that person happy instead of what is best for the organization.

And if it is even remotely true – that one person has so much power, so many contacts, so much knowledge that is not transferable – then you need to fix it.

Anything can happen to that almighty individual – they could be recruited away, they could win the lottery and, yes, they could get hit by that proverbial bus. Why would you possibly allow that kind of liability to exist?

Now that we’ve put that behind us, let’s get back to what succession planning is all about.

It means looking at your key board and staff positions and planning ahead as to what you will do when, inevitably, those positions open up.  

Who will handle the duties of that position it the short term? How will you go about determining if the needs have evolved, and if the position and required skills should change?

Who will you pull in for the discussion? In the case of the executive director, are there firms that you should involve?

What about an interim? Is there a reason to consider a current staff member to fill that role? (a tricky option) Is there reason for a board member to fill it? (even trickier)

Do you have a sense of everything each position does? Are there job descriptions on hand that can easily be reviewed and updated? Are there any obvious candidates for the position? Is the pay currently what it needs to be?

Embrace succession planning, even though it might hurt feelings. Be clear that this is about planning for the organization’s future, and not about getting someone out of his or her current seat.

It illustrates that nobody is – or can be – indispensible, though everyone should know that already. And if they don’t, they’ll need to get over it.

Just like I had to do.

Now go do good…and do it well





2 responses to “The Real “S” Word”

  1. Colleen Lukoff Avatar
    Colleen Lukoff

    Thanks for tackling this subject. It often gets discussed, but these underlying issues as you stated frequently “get in the way.”

  2. Carol Lease Avatar

    Right on. It seems so time consuming to do but the consequences of not doing it would be even more time lost for the organization.