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                         Succession Planning
This resource outlines the main considerations when forward planning for the succession of key leaders, as well as what to do when the change actually occurs.
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Chess Game

Succession of key leaders, especially the chief executive/director is an important matter for the stability and continuing development of any organisation. However, in small organisations it is sometimes overlooked.


Good succession should be planned well before departure is a reality. When a key member of staff, especially a chief executive, moves on their departure and the recruitment of a successor are significant activities. At the same time there are both risks and opportunities for the organisation.


There are three main scenarios:

  • When an able leader moves to a new organisation.

  • When an able leader has a sudden unexpected exit such as death, major accident or serious illness which means they can no longer continue in post.

  • When a leader has reached their “sell by date” and needs to be managed out of the organisation.


Biblical Models

The Bible has plenty of models of leadership succession including:

  • David and Solomon in 1 Chronicles 29 and 1 Kings 1 and 2.

  • Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 19 and 2 Kings 2

  • Jesus and his disciples (throughout the four gospels)

  • Paul and Timothy

You may like to reflect on one or more of these as part of your succession exercise.


Forward Planning

1. Appraisal conversations

It simpler to raise the subject of the future if there is a natural and expected place for the conversation to take place. Include a regular question in all appraisals such as:

  • Where do you hope/expect to be in 1/2/3 years’ time?

  • What do you see as the next step in your career/ministry/Christian service?

Hopefully this will give opportunity for an open, honest yet confidential conversation. It opens up a discussion about how both parties can plan for the person to be appropriately ready for their next step and for the organisation to prepare for filling the vacancy. It may also provide the opportunity to explore whether someone has interest in a more senior role, should a vacancy arise. (NB In the latter instance be careful about setting expectations and don’t make promises.)


2. Identifying internal talent/potential successors

Succession planning includes proactively identifying and developing new leaders to succeed current ones on a timely and smooth basis. So identifying and growing internal talent to fill critical posts is part of this. A chief executive and HR manager/director might create a simple table with a line for each of the key posts in an organisation to analyse the possibilities. The columns could cover:

  • When you predict that a successor might be needed.

  • Are there any staff in the organisation who, with development, could be potential successors?

  • What training and development could be started ahead of a vacancy?

  • How might this be explored further ie next steps?


3. Risk assessment and action plan in case of unexpected departure

Carry out a brief brainstorm with key leaders:

  • If he/she went under the proverbial bus what would need to be done?

  • What critical information could be lost if it is not shared or left in an accessible place?

Make a record based on the responses, which may include a brief action plan to use in the event of an unplanned absence, to be held for example by their manager (this may be the chair of trustees), the person who usually covers for them and their personal assistant.


4. Risks and opportunities of leadership succession

Give some advance thought to the likely risks that may occur, such as loss of direction and vision, experience, skills, corporate memory, other staff, beneficiaries or supporters who particularly identified with the departing person. What advance action can you take now to minimise the impact of these?


Similarly what new opportunities might a leadership succession offer: new vision, ideas, skills, experience, momentum, supporters? Is there anything you should do now to ensure that you capitalise on these during the succession period?


5. An outline succession plan

Compile a checklist or template for the generic tasks associated with departure/leaving, recruitment and handover. This saves reinventing the wheel each time someone leaves the organisation. See below for further details.


6. Prayer

Prayer for the organisation’s staff, their wellbeing, development, performance and futures should be regularly on the list for trustees and confidential prayer warriors/intercessors.


When the time comes

The lead-time for succession can vary considerably from over a year to no notice at all.  Ensure that you include the following:


1. Communication

You may know well in advance about a forthcoming departure. In which case communications to different groups may take place at different times.

  • Agree who to tell: trustees, staff and volunteers, supporters, beneficiaries, others beyond the organisation.

  • Agree how and when: each audience will require an appropriate method of communication. This may be: personal conversation, group verbal briefing, email, website, press release.

  • Agree clear consistent messaging that covers the reason for the departure, appreciation for the person leaving and plans for recruitment of a successor. Use announcements about departure and arrival to raise the organisation’s profile externally.


2. Planning team

If you haven’t already done so, put together a small team to lead the succession exercise. This is likely to include the line manager for the post (this may be the chair of trustees) and the person undertaking the HR activity. Be clear who is taking the lead: It should NOT be the person who is leaving!


3. A project plan

This will include: tasks, who each task is assigned to and timescales. Remember to include how you will address the risks and opportunities of succession that you identified in advance. They can be developed when you know the exact scenario.


4. Search and recruitment

  • Who will lead the search? Will you undertake it through advertising, headhunting or a combination?

  • Review the role, including the job description and person specification, with the post holder, their line manager, leadership team, direct reports and possibly other team members as appropriate.

  • Consider any restructuring of the post and/or the team.

  • Consider whether this is an opportunity for other changes at the same time.

  • Work out the selection and interview process. Competence, character, chemistry and culture are all important criteria.

  • Make a project plan for recruitment which includes time for an appropriate handover.


5. Practicalities for departure

It is important, whatever the circumstances, that people leave the organisation well: ideally you want them to be a continuing ambassador for the organisation.

  • Agree key tasks for the post holder to complete before departure

  • A written resignation is required before a departure is announced and before recruitment is started.

  • Agree a timetable for recruitment.

  • Ask the leaving post holder to sort paper and electronic files and label them clearly, in conjunction with their PA where appropriate.

  • Prepare handover notes and sessions for the successor, including any tasks which have a regular/ annual cycle.

  • Make practical arrangements for desks, phones etc during handover period when two of each may be needed.

  • Make introductions for the new post holder, ideally by the departing post holder, to key contacts, email address book etc.

  • Determine how to retain/pass on any important corporate memories for the organisation.

  • Undertake an exit interview including feedback from the job holder as well as information re P45, pension, return of any equipment, data, keys, credit card etc. For a senior team member it may be more appropriate for some of this to be undertaken with a trustee.

  • Arrange a thank you/farewell/leaving event appropriate to role and length of service.

  • Arrange a card and gift to be given at the farewell event if this is part of organisational culture.


6. Interregnum

If timescales mean an interregnum is likely, consider whether to put an interim/acting person in place: either a senior member of staff or an external person on a temporary basis. This is especially important if the interregnum is for the leader of the organisation. Ensure that the acting person has a clear remit for what they can and can’t change and do. Be very careful not to set expectations that the temporary appointment may become permanent, even when that is a possibility. If there is an interregnum ask the person leaving if they are willing to return for the handover once the new post holder has started.


7. A healthy handover

There’s a balance in how a handover is done from one job holder to the next. Much depends on personal style: some will want to give/receive far more detail than others. Consider whether an overlap in employment is helpful or whether a series of meetings before one leaves or after the other arrives might be more appropriate. Wherever possible arrange time for old and new to meet several times: people can only take in so much new information in one sitting.

  • Talk through each aspect of the job description, highlighting any current issues, priorities, activity.

  • Talk through any projects/programmes/initiatives that the departing post holder has been involved in.

  • Talk through each direct report/team member including their current priorities, objectives and performance. Ensure last copies of performance reviews & objectives for direct reports are passed to the successor.

  • Talk through anything that has a regular cycle. A month by month annual overview may be helpful for some posts.

  • Provide a list of paper and electronic files.

  • Provide brief written notes if or where this is agreed appropriate and will be used.

  • Identify any specific corporate memory topics.

  • Provide opportunity to flag any issues that the new post holder needs to be aware of.


8. Supporting staff through the change

A change of leader will have a significant effect on other staff.

  • There may be feelings of loss and insecurity, there may also be excitement about new opportunities.

  • Nominate someone to be responsible for regular staff updates. Brief staff about the changes including an overview of the process and likely timetable. Make a commitment and set expectations to update them periodically. Give opportunity for questions, whilst recognising some questions will have to be answered “I can’t tell you that at present”. Invite staff to pray about the recruitment and any wider changes.


9. Prayer

In a Christian context prayer is critical right through the process. Consider who to involve, identify some major prayer points to be covered and communicate them accordingly.


Signposts to other resources


Author and copyright: Helen Calder 2019

This resource has been peer reviewed

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