Board Succession Planning

The Power of Board Succession Planning

All heads typically turn toward executive directors when talk of “succession” reaches the board room, but they’re not the only nonprofit leaders who warrant transition attention. All of them do, in fact, yet organizations often lack preparedness for turnover at any level. Still, board of director succession planning is essential to good governance, as it sets the stage for board engagement and performance, not to mention effective leadership. And effective board leadership matters more than many think, as noted by ASAE and referenced by Social Venture Partners in Succession Planning for the Non-profit Board Chair:

“Most organizations can survive the successful election to the Board of an individual or two whose group participation skills and leadership attributes are less than stellar, as other stronger members of the Board will generally neutralize any adverse consequences to the organization. However, placing Board members into the organization’s highest leadership positions is a much higher-stakes proposition. Persons in elected leadership positions with mediocre leadership skills will, at best, do no harm, but might cause the association to miss strategic advantageous opportunities. Persons with poor leadership skills may create organization dysfunctions that may take years from which to recover, if ever.”

Yes, the wrong board leaders can be fatal to an organization, not just disastrous to the board or chief executive. Whoa. Clearly, it’s worth revisiting how board leaders get selected – and developed, oriented, assessed, replaced, and transitioned.

Even the best board leaders need transition time, as observed by the Executive Director of a national nonprofit organization. “I really respect my new chair and know we’ll work well together, but there’s a learning curve for both of us. I’m still learning what information he wants and still explaining the line between his job and mine.” After only two months as chair, this corporate executive instinctively applies his operational expertise to the role, which isn’t what the chief executive — or organization — actually needs. Fortunately, the board created an ex-officio position on the board so the former board chair can serve for one year as “past chair” and mentor to her successor.

In a less encouraging example, the governance chair of a mid-sized nonprofit struggles through the aftermath of an abrupt departure by the board chair. “We don’t have an obvious choice,” she confesses. “The few board members with the time and willingness to lead are too green in governance to lead well. While most of us learn on the job, it’s an especially tough job right now,” given the organizational crisis that triggered (and followed) the chair’s departure.

To be sure, leading a board can be challenging anywhere. Everywhere. Even the corporate sector has seen a shift that makes the role of board chair “more demanding of time and commitment” than had been the case, according to the executive search firm, Spencer Stuart. Even as the chair’s influence over the board and whole organization continues to grow, there is a “dearth of the highest quality candidates” who bring the time, experience, and personality needed for the role. Thus, nonprofit and corporate boards alike must plan for board leadership succession.

Social Venture Partners breaks down succession of the board chair position into key areas, which seem relevant to any board leadership role:

  1. Define the role. Just as the CEO or Executive Director job description varies from organization to organization, so do board leadership positions. Size, stage, and type of organization all impact leadership roles, so create job descriptions complete with responsibilities, criteria, and performance goals for each.
  2. Define a Development Process for Future Board Leadership. Don’t take chances and rely upon serendipity for filling key board roles, as luck is unlikely to align actual qualifications and talent with organizational needs. Instead, boards must “consciously and deliberately plan and invest in board members” to ensure they build the credentials, confidence, interest, and knowledge they’ll need to lead.
  3. Define a Process of Succession. Check your bylaws for rules about how your officers ascend to their positions, including who nominates and elects which leadership roles and how long they serve. Amend your bylaws, if need be, to ensure the process provides an appropriate framework that reflects organizational needs.

Another important step is on-boarding or orientation for new board leaders. A mentor or shadowing program can be helpful to new officers and committee chairs, who might “apprentice” for a period of time with their predecessors before (or after) elections. Moreover, the board orientation handbook that’s available to all new board members can serve as a model for an alternate guide available to board leaders. Included could be articles and resources specific to leadership roles, as well as documentation relevant to each position.

The Society for Human Resources Management offers some handy, sample tools for managing board leadership succession. For instance, a “Board Planning Succession Grid” can be very useful for tracking board leadership roles and their pipeline of potential candidates, along with those individuals’ development needs and an organization’s leadership competencies.

The leadership development process is incomplete, of course, without opportunities for evaluation. Unfortunately, nonprofit boards often shy away from assessing their members’ performance. This seems especially true with board leadership, as board culture errs toward protection of the status quo for the sake of ease and equilibrium. Even when board members realize the board has been “hijacked” by a renegade or ineffective leader, they might conspire to avoid conflict. “It’s hard to argue with someone who believes he’s acting in the organization’s best interests, especially if it means we’ll lose his support and risk not finding a viable replacement,” explains the board member of a small healthcare organization. As stated earlier, however, keeping ineffective leaders in place can be detrimental to board culture as well as organizational health.

Intent around board leadership succession will enhance both the process and outcomes. According to the Maryland Association for Nonprofits, an experienced board member once said, “I always paid attention in meetings, but I never paid attention quite as well as the year I became Chair Elect.” Building awareness among board members will foster their investment in the succession process, as well as their own professional development, and foster smoother transitions in board leadership.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.