Nothing Succeeds Like Succession (Planning, That Is)

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We hope everyone realizes they won’t live forever. Or stay in their current positions forever. Some of you won’t even stay in the museum profession, if greener pastures beckon. Yet, one of the ironies of the nothing-lasts-forever reality show is so few organizations have made it a point to write a succession plan for key staff or, even, board leaders.

That’s right. Almost all of you reading this post work or volunteer at museums that don’t have a written succession plan for the director or likely anyone else (in fact, only 14% of AAM-accredited museums and 8% of non-accredited museums have one*). Those numbers are worse than the meager 24% of nonprofits across the board that report they have a plan.** In a worst-case scenario – let’s say, the director is hit by a bus or any staff leader departs abruptly – the chances are excellent grief, confusion, and chaos will fill the void. That’s when a succession plan, even the most rudimentary one, will prove invaluable.

But there’s more. A solid plan will not only outline procedures for dealing with unplanned and planned short- and long-term absences or departures, it can also be a useful tool for ongoing staff development, as well as the orientation of new talent to create smooth transitions. Seen as a spectrum of strategies for building overall organizational capacity, succession planning takes on new import, one Joan and I embraced many years ago when we were studying succession in New York state museums (and the percentage then of museums having a plan were no better than what BoardSource/AAM reported in 2017).

If you’re still unconvinced, know that replacing an organization’s leadership is hard work. It can be emotionally and intellectually challenging, time consuming, and costly. Few cultural nonprofits have the staff bench strength to promote quickly from within. Many organizations resort to knee-jerk reactions when faced with their staff leader’s departure. They fail to take the pause they need to contemplate the organization’s future leadership needs and they may overlook talent that, with development, may be staring them in the face. In this regard, consider succession planning a risk management practice, one that will help stem the tide of knowledge loss when a leader leaves and sustain program and service effectiveness.

Here are some tips to get you moving toward succession planning:

  • By renaming the process succession development, you’ve already started to recast it for what it actually is – a focused process for keeping talent in your organization’s pipeline.
  • Shift your planning focus away from specific individuals to the organization as a whole.
  • Manage transitions intentionally with defined mutual expectations.
  • Like most plans, succession development planning is not an end in itself; it only helps to identify the development experiences needed by staff to help them move forward.
  • To the extent you can, keep a timeline of those transitions that are planned (or anticipated).
  • Cross-train staff and build in redundancies, and provide leadership development opportunities for high-performing staff.
  • Keep your succession development plan simple and realistic.

Pretty straightforward, huh? No excuses now.

Anne W. Ackerson

Resources

BoardSource. “Fundamental Topics of Nonprofit Board Service: Executive Transition.”

California Association of Museums Lunch and Learn Webinar. “Change is Inevitable: The Essentials of Succession Planning with Anne W. Ackerson.” May 2019.

National Council of Nonprofits. “Succession Planning for Nonprofits – Managing Leadership Transitions.”

Marshall Goldsmith. “4 Tips for Effective Succession Planning.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2009.

Terry Ibele. “50 Practical Tips for Succession Planning.” Wild Apricot. December 5, 2016.

* BoardSource, Museum Board Leadership 2017: A National Report (Washington, D.C.: BoardSource, 2017), p. 16.
** BoardSource, Leading with Intent, 2017.

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