A president resigns unexpectedly. A dean takes an extended medical leave. A board chair retires with no obvious replacement. These kinds of sudden departures among the top leadership can significantly threaten the mission of organizations, but they are inevitable — so it is important for schools and boards to plan for them.

Yet preparing for transitions at the top is only a part of establishing a “culture of leadership continuity.” That phrase, and that wisdom, comes from Randy Brinson, a succession planning consultant who recently presented an In Trust Center webinar on this topic. 

“Leadership continuity is about helping sustain an organization’s viability and future mission by supporting its people and developing its human capital,” says Brinson. “The most important resources we have are the people who are working and volunteering to carry out the mission.” 

This is especially important for organizations or schools that are facing an uncertain financial future. When an institution is in panic mode, efforts to build a healthy culture may fall by the wayside. 

Even though building a leadership continuity culture is important, many schools and other nonprofits are not even doing the basics. For example, while 68 percent of nonprofit executives say they plan to leave their current role in five years, BoardSource reports that 73 percent of nonprofit institutions do not have an executive succession plan.

In his recent webinar, Brinson said that leadership continuity should be embedded in an organization’s institutional culture as a form of resource development — the development of human resources — to ensure that there is always a pipeline of talent in the organization. He suggests that human resource development is as important as fundraising, but that it rarely gets the same time and attention.

According to Brinson, succession planning should address all positions in an organization— not just those at the top. It should include paid and volunteer personnel, the senior leadership, board members, new employees — any position in which a vacancy may pose a threat to the institutional mission.

Planned board transitions are healthy

Instituting a sound succession plan can help an organization adapt to change. As Brinson says, “New leaders bring new ideas, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking about things.”

When planning for board transitions, term limits and board training are both important. Term limits ensure that new members, who reflect the institution’s current needs and who bring fresh ideas, are always joining the board. Board training supports the growth of emerging board leaders. To prepare board leaders and capture the wisdom of board members before their terms are done, some organizations use a three-stage path: first chair-elect, then chair, and finally past chair. Past board members can also be asked to serve on task forces or on councils of advisors, Brinson says.

For institutions that have not fostered a culture of leadership continuity, a good first step may be to have a conversation with board members and other stakeholders. Brinson suggests broaching the topic at a facilitated retreat where the concept of planning for continuity can be formally presented. 

He also suggests that using a leadership continuity self-assessment tool can get the discussion started, facilitate more effective conversation on strategy, and identify areas that may need improvement. Self-assessment can help a board look at its own big-picture questions, such as Does our institution demonstrate that it values its people, and if so, how? and What would it look like if we developed human capital with the same amount of energy we give to financial capital?

Creating a culture of continuity or even discussing its implementation may feel threatening to those involved. “Just raising the topic of succession planning has the potential to cause discomfort for some people,” Brinson says. To reduce negative feelings, he suggests focusing on the mission — why succession planning helps the entire organization and everyone who works there — and tethering continuity to the overall strategic plan for the organization. The best approach is to be transparent and invite participation, he says. “Do it with people, not to people.”

Components of succession planning 

Brinson says that a key component of an effective succession plan is creating a contingency plan. It should identify the key roles in the organization and suggest either internal staff or professional interims who can fill those roles during short (three- to six-month) and permanent vacancies. The plan should also include an inventory of vital information known only by these employees, such as company banking and investment details, computer passwords, and important contacts. This plan should be created in consultation with those involved and should be updated annually.

For the chief executive position, hiring a professional interim can relieve the pressure of making a quick hire and can act as a shock absorber to help ease transitions — especially of a departing leader who served for many years, Brinson says. An interim can also help clean up any left-behind problems instead of passing them on to the next leader and may even be able to help with the search for the next chief executive. “The best interim leaders are really capacity builders,” Brinson says. “They understand their purpose is to create alignment within the institution and to create success for the next leader.”

Contingency plans can also include specific policies or directives. For example, a chief executive succession plan can include processes that take effect in the event of a permanent absence (such as resignation or death) and for short-term absences (such as for parental leave, health challenges, or a sabbatical). 

The plan should indicate how the board is notified of the absence, how an interim leader is appointed, what authority the interim has, what the salary is, and (if the interim is a current employee) how the interim’s original responsibilities will be changed. “Having a policy like this is a great way to minimize behind-the-scenes maneuvering that can happen during a transition and make sure a good process is followed,” says Brinson. 

Beyond the chief

If a school is going to build a culture of leadership continuity across the institution, then more needs to be done than simply planning for the chief executive’s departure. Other practices that can help minimize attrition and legal risks include updating job descriptions, maintaining personnel files, and supporting professional development. 

“Maintaining and motivating people is important,” Brinson says, adding that nonprofits can best attract talent through a strong mission statement and a reputation as a good employer. Employee retention reduces the need to activate emergency transition plans and translates into stronger continuity. 

He adds that human resource policies and leadership continuity policies should also address inclusivity, diversity, and equity — both for employees and for the board. “Board composition has an impact on how a board leads,” Brinson says. 

A lack of diversity can lead to groupthink and poor decision making. “Our advice is to start with the question, What board composition should we have to best understand the needs of those we serve and serve them more effectively?

Finally, Brinson offers a reminder that any strategic plan should be a resourced one, meaning that it should include a discussion of what financial and human resources are needed to achieve the plan’s goals. He says: “Remember the goal is not to create a single document, but to build, over time, a culture in the institution that continually values the development of people and ensures a smooth transition of talent into the future.” 


For more information on building a culture of leadership continuity, or to view Randy Brinson’s recent webinar on this topic, contact the In Trust Center at resources@intrust.org

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