By Molly Hansen, Vice President, Alford Group
“Please be our next board chair. Joe, Sarah, and Ben have all turned us down and Andrew doesn’t want to stay on for another term.”
Has this ever happened to you or in your organization? With thoughtful planning and leadership development you can create a reality where begging for board officers and committee leaders just doesn’t happen.
In a 2015 BoardSource survey, only 49% of nonprofit CEOs agreed that their organizations had an effective process in place for officer succession. CEOs often navigate (survive?) multiple chair transitions, and cited building a board leadership pipeline as being among the most important area for board improvement.
A recent Board Effect blog post cites the report Succession Planning for the Non-profit Board Chair that finds:
“Most organizations can survive the successful election to the Board of an individual or two whose group participation skills and leadership attributes are less than stellar, as other stronger members of the Board will generally neutralize any adverse consequences to the organization. However, placing Board members into the organization’s highest leadership positions is a much higher-stakes proposition. Persons in elected leadership positions with mediocre leadership skills will, at best, do no harm, but might cause the association to miss strategic advantageous opportunities. Persons with poor leadership skills may create organization dysfunctions that may take years from which to recover, if ever.”
Perhaps you’ve avoided some of the circumstances described above even while recruiting officers at the last minute or having to go to several board members to get one to accept the position you’re trying to fill. Let me ask you this – was that the best person for that job? Would you like to have better prepared and engaged officers?
It all begins with having a strategic board succession plan and recruiting process in place which requires a strong Board Governance leader and committee.
Sometimes the Governance Committee is referred to as the Board Development Committee, Nominating Committee or Committee on Trustees. Whatever you name the committee, I would venture that the Board Governance Committee (BGC) is THE most important committee of a nonprofit organization. In a nutshell, the committee’s main responsibilities are to recruit new board members and officers and ensure that each board member is equipped with the right training, tools and motivation to fulfill their responsibilities.
That’s a pretty broad description, but when you think about it, without a strong board fulfilling its responsibilities and meeting expectations, the staff and the organization as a whole is hamstrung in being able to truly fulfill the mission and achieve their vision of impact and social change.
My 35 years of working in the nonprofit sector has taught me that it is insanely challenging to lead an impactful and sustainable organization without a strong board. If you’re working or serving as a board member in that environment, it’s time to develop an officer succession plan and an overall stronger board.
WHERE DO YOU START?
Begin with recruiting the right and best people to the board in the first place. What are your criteria? Remember that you are recruiting people who fill an important role with your organization. Yes, they are unpaid roles, but proper steps need to be taken just like you do (we hope) when you are filling a higher level staff position.
Filling a board seat with the first warm body who says yes or your cousin – because they’re fun – is not a good idea. For more information on board recruiting, take a look at my previous blog post on finding excellent board members.
CREATING THE PATH TO YOUR NEXT GREAT BOARD CHAIR
How do you begin board leadership succession planning if you and your nonprofit organization have traditionally recruited new officers on an as needed basis? It doesn’t matter whether you have a Board Governance Committee in place or not – the first step is to find allies for the idea of succession planning in the first place.
If you’ve got a BGC, great! Begin with them. Share your thoughts on succession planning with them – what you see as the advantages, allow them to share their thoughts and concerns. Just like in major gift fundraising, anticipate their objections, listen authentically, and collaborate towards a meaningful consensus and solution.
If you don’t have a BGC in place (or a similar committee by another name) find an ally or two. You need to create a critical mass of a few board members and the executive director to lead the charge. The current board chair is a good ally, especially if they are already a good leader. The executive director is essential, and one or two more board members with the board chair constitute a task force that can lead and manage the process of board leadership succession planning.
Next – The BGC or Task Force brings the need for a thoughtful and strategic process for recruiting new board officers to the executive committee and eventually the full board. Follow a similar discussion process to the one you used with the BGC or in bringing together the Task Force.
Clearly defining the role, responsibilities, expectations, and attributes of each officer position comes next. Even if you have job descriptions in place, now is a good time to review those job descriptions and revise accordingly as you work towards developing a higher-performing board.
Once you have agreement on the officer job descriptions, expectations and important attributes, identify the gaps in leadership that need to be filled in the very near future and in the long term. Part of this process is to establish clarity on the expiration of the current officers’ terms and the expiration of each board member’s term – for future planning.
Given that you are developing a board leadership succession plan, focus on defining criteria for the board chair role because you are planning that future board chairs will have served as committee leaders and in other officer positions previously.
AGREEMENTS ON SELECTION CRITERIA
The full board and executive director must agree on the selection criteria for the board chair. Of course, the chair should have the usual attributes that members of the board have with the top board position requiring much more. For example:
- Strong knowledge of principles, ethics, and practices of successful organizations
- Excellent verbal communication, interpersonal/relationship building/problem solving skills
- Ability to effectively work with staff and manage board members
- Ability to work effectively with a diverse set of stakeholders
- Confidence in presenting, informing and motivating individuals and groups about the organization’s mission and vision
- Demonstrated clarity and strength in handling confidentiality and conflicts of interest
- Willingness to set the standard of behavior for the board and serve as a role model for upcoming officers.
(Adapted from Social Venture Partners Succession Planning for the Non-profit Board Chair, February 2012)
BOARD LEADERSHIP SUCCESSION OUTLINE
While it may not fit exactly with your organization, the following outline provides a basis on which you can customize your own Board Leadership Succession Plan. Make sure you have clear descriptions in place for all committees and committee leaders.
- Begin with ensuring that every new board member is serving on a committee.
- In year two of a new board member’s committee service, move that person into a committee co-chair or chair role if they have the right qualities. A good rule of thumb is to have co-chairs of every committee whenever possible.
- After two years on the board, some may be ready to step into an officer role. Generally, we recommend that a board member serve as a committee chair or in an officer role prior to becoming Board Chair-Elect.
- We recommend that a Board Chair-Elect, in a one year term, immediately precede serving as Board Chair and that the Board Chair, after their term expires (generally two years), move into the Past Chair position. This sets up a grooming and coaching relationship that provides continuity and leadership readiness.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
Develop a pipeline of potential leaders just as you do for prospects of any kind – major donors, committee members, board candidates, etc.
Board leaders, and especially the Board Chair, set the standard of behavior for the entire board. Leaders act as role models and the Chair is the “designated grown-up” who listens authentically, is respectful and open to new ideas, and never acts contentiously or for personal gain.
Term limits for the overall board are critical. Term limits ensure that new perspectives and talents are brought into board meetings. Term limits enable the board to efficiently adjust its membership to reflect the changing needs of the organization. And term limits allow for a graceful exit for board members who are not fulfilling their responsibilities or expectations. Staggered terms are best so that continuity is in place.
Support your “leaders to be”
Provide coaching and mentoring for likely leadership candidates to support their leadership development. There are many opportunities in the form of conferences and workshops:
Alford Group’s leadership development services include a full complement of board training, coaching and development opportunities for individuals, as well as both small and large groups.
I would love to hear about your experiences with board leadership transition. Do you have a system in place that has worked for you? What are your organization’s greatest successes or significant pain points in working through board transitions?
Send me a direct email and let’s connect!