Get Your Association Succession Plan in Shape

Written by Bostrom

When it comes to leadership succession planning, many organizations believe the best time to think about it is when the CEO (or another member of your organization’s senior staff) announce their resignation. Right?


Too many organizations save succession planning for a crisis – or for their CEO to manage. Either scenario can derail operations and threaten an organization’s viability.

The time to think about succession planning is well before the actual announcement. Like any good plan, succession planning requires ongoing, careful thinking to develop and adjust strategies and tactics to optimize results. A plan allows an organization greater flexibility and the ability to address issues proactively rather than react to them. And it helps ensure an orderly, nonpolitical and deliberate transition.  In addition, as part of a succession plan, many organizations have plans for an interim senior leadership role.

Today, succession planning takes on added importance for two reasons. First, more and more senior association staff are transitioning to other roles, creating a vacancy at the top. Second, increasingly, associations are incorporating best practices from the for-profit sector in all aspects of management.

Contrary to what some executives believe, it is the Board and not the CEO that owns the organization’s succession plan and everything that accompanies it (onboarding, training, etc.). The CEO’s role is to introduce the concept of succession planning and offer guidance. But it is up to the Board to determine some basic ground rules on succession planning. For example, should the organization look beyond association professionals to industry professionals for potential candidates? Would the organization benefit from an interim CEO? And will staff or a search firm be tasked with recruiting?

As with Bostrom’s approach to association management, a key element of strategic succession planning is agility. In our work with a variety of trade associations and professional societies, we have identified four key outcomes of effective succession planning:

1. Multiple Benefits: succession planning helps an organization deal with anticipated and unanticipated employee transitions to help maintain leadership continuity. It provides a roadmap for critical employee development and performance improvement, often leading to increased retention of key employees.

2. Link to Strategic Plan: The CEO is central to implementing the organization’s strategic plan, with the Board’s assistance. Linking the succession plan to the strategic plan helps ensure consistency and continuity and helps the organization identify the experience and competencies required of senior leaders.

3. Annual Review: Boards should review the organization’s succession plan at least annually to ensure its continued relevance.

4. Effective Onboarding: To help ensure a seamless transition, develop a transition plan that includes immersing the new CEO in the organization’s operations, creating opportunities for the CEO to engage with stakeholders (including members/volunteers, staff and Board). The Board Chair oversees and monitors the transition process.

Is it time to get your organization’s succession plan in shape?

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