Succession planning is not an issue that many organizations address in any systematic way. Because many nonprofits are small (with fewer than 10 employees) and because they may be facing other organizational challenges, thinking about who the next executive director might be or what would happen if the director of finance suddenly left is not high on their priority list.
There are many reasons why organizations need to be thinking about succession planning. The most important reason, of course, is that we rely on staff to carry out our missions, provide services and meet our organization’s goals. We need to think about what would happen to those services or our ability to fulfill our mission if a key staff member left.
Another reason to focus on succession planning is the changing realities of workplaces. The impending retirement of the baby boomers is expected to have a major impact on workforce capacity. Teresa Howe in “Succession Planning and Management” identified other emerging realities about the workforce in Canada:
- Vacancies in senior or key positions are occurring in numerous organizations simultaneously and demographics indicate there are statistically fewer people available to fill them
- Baby boomer retirements are on the rise just at the time when the economy is growing and increasing the demand for senior management expertise
- There is no emerging group of potential employees on the horizon as in past generations (i.e. baby boomers, women entering the workforce, large waves of immigration)
- Many organizations eliminated middle manager positions during restructuring in the 1980s and 90s and no longer have this group as a source to fill senior level vacancies
- Younger managers interested in moving up do not have the skills and experience required because they have not been adequately mentored. This is because middle managers, who would normally perform this type of coaching role, were eliminated
With careful planning and preparation, organizations can manage the changes that result from a generational transfer of leadership as well as the ongoing changes that occur regularly when key employees leave an organization.
Although the type and extent of planning will be different, organizations both large and small need to have some sort of succession plan. Effective succession planning supports organizational stability and sustainability by ensuring there is an established process to meet staffing requirements. Boards and executive directors can demonstrate leadership by having the strategies and processes in place to ensure that these transitions occur smoothly, with little disruption to the organization.
A succession plan, simply put, is a component of good HR planning and management. Succession planning acknowledges that staff will not be with an organization indefinitely and it provides a plan and process for addressing the changes that will occur when they leave. Most succession planning focuses on the most senior manager – the executive director, however, all key positions should be included in the plan. Key positions can be defined as those positions that are crucial for the operations of your organization and, because of skill, seniority and/or experience, will be hard to replace.
Whenever size and resources permit, a succession plan should involve nurturing and developing employees from within an organization. Employees who are perceived to have the skills, knowledge, qualities, experience and the desire can be groomed to move up to fill specific, key positions. Organizations should:
- Assess their current and future needs based on either their strategic plan, goals and objectives, or priority programs and projects
- Match these to the capabilities of the existing workforce
- Develop a plan to manage the gaps that will arise when individuals in key positions leave or are promoted
The plan will generally include a combination of training and developing existing staff, and external recruitment.
The benefits of good succession planning include:
- A means of ensuring the organization is prepared with a plan to support service continuity when the executive director, senior managers or key people leave
- A continuing supply of qualified, motivated people (or a process to identify them), who are prepared to take over when current senior staff and other key employees leave the organization
- An alignment between your organization’s vision and your human resources that demonstrates an understanding of the need to have appropriate staffing to achieve strategic plans
- A commitment to developing career paths for employees which will facilitate your organization’s ability to recruit and retain top-performing employees and volunteers
- An external reputation as an employer that invests in its people and provides opportunities and support for advancement
- A message to your employees that they are valuable
The absence of a succession plan can undermine an organization’s effectiveness and its sustainability. Without a succession planning process, an organization may not have a means of ensuring that the programs and services that are crucial to its operation are sustained beyond the tenure of the individual currently responsible for them.
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