As stewards of their association, board members need to be focused on the future of the organization, in addition to the present. To ensure that the board is positioned to continue driving the association forward toward its long-term goals and mission, it’s paramount to have a robust board succession strategy. Poor transitions in board leadership can result in stagnation or disruption. A strategic approach to succession planning allows one administration to further the work of its predecessor on long-term strategic goals.
Identifying Future Leaders
An effective board succession strategy starts with having a rigorous process for identifying and recruiting the right volunteer leaders, says Bret Kelsey, an executive director at Smithbucklin. This process should run through a nominating or leadership management committee tasked with finding, recruiting, vetting, and assigning volunteers to positions that put them on the right track to become leaders.
The candidates may come from a variety of sources. They can step forward themselves, be nominated by someone else, be recommended by a board member, or be sought out by the committee. Regardless, the committee should conduct a vetting process to discover which candidates have board leadership potential so it can create a pipeline of top performers. “Be deliberate about it. Create a list of high-potential volunteers from across the association and ensure that they have training opportunities,” Kelsey says.
The bar should be set high in this search for the future leaders that will be elevated through the ranks. The best leadership candidates should exhibit not only the requisite experience and knowledge; they should also possess a variety of other qualities. Are they strategic thinkers? Do they possess good judgment? Are they consensus builders? Do they value learning? The committee should also look for tangible and intangible factors. Do they have the time to commit? Are they politically savvy? Have they served in past volunteer leadership roles? Finally, they should look for key personal attributes. Do they have high character? Are they honest? Can they inspire others?
The people who embody these qualities should be assigned to positions where they can gain leadership experience and visibility within the association. That might mean assigning them to lead a task force or work group, or appointing them to chair a committee. In these roles, they can hone and demonstrate their leadership skills, while also giving the organization a chance to see how they perform.
As such, committee chair or task force head positions are often stepping stones to serving on the board. This is not always the case, as some committee chairs may be more tactical and less strategic, which is sometimes required in running certain committees. But, in general, looking at committee leaders as a source of potential board talent is part of an effective succession strategy. It’s also important to look downstream at committee leadership succession with the same critical eye. To that end, consider appointing co-chairs to lead key committees or charging each committee to have a succession plan.
While it may be obvious that board officers typically come from existing board members, there are instances where this is not the case. There may be rare circumstances where an officer comes from a committee or straight from the membership to fill a unique role, but ideally, board officers should have board experience. It’s a recommended practice for the Nominating or Leadership Management Committee to nominate a slate of board officers each year, selecting the best candidates to lead based on their rigorous vetting process, Kelsey says. When considering elevating someone to the officer ranks, the decision may be influenced by specific needs or expertise the board might need at that time, as well as the overall leadership qualities outlined previously.
When a committee recommends officers, it’s typically for three to five positions that include the chair-elect, chair, and immediate past chair. For these three in particular, each officer would serve in each position before rolling off. So, if they came on as chair-elect, they would serve a term in that role, learning the ropes before becoming chair, and then immediate past chair. “They serve in officer positions that have a natural succession to become the board president. It is very visible to members and stakeholders so they can see the stability and get to know who is going to be moving into those roles,” Kelsey says.
A succession plan should set parameters around length of service for both board members and officers. Kelsey suggests four to six years on the board of directors, which would be two or three two-year terms. Then the board member would either get in the leadership queue to become an officer or move off the board. Again, there may be individuals who move up quicker, based on need or other circumstances, but this is a basic structure for successful organizations.
Kelsey recommends having one-year terms for the officer positions, but certainly no more than two-year terms. So, if there are three officer positions, this would require another three or four years on the board. In all, you would be asking for a seven to 10-year commitment from volunteers who serve on the board and move into leadership roles. That’s not including any time spent on committees or task forces. For many associations, this structure effectively identifies and grooms new volunteer leaders while maintaining continuity from one board to the next.
Board leadership is an association’s most strategic asset, so succession planning and leadership development should be a top priority. It should be made part of the agenda at every board meeting. That could be in the form of governance training, which would involve reviewing a different aspect of good governance at every meeting. It might also be beneficial for the board to set aside time for self-assessment to think about board composition in light of the strategic plan. Which skills, competencies, or representation might the board need going forward to advance the mission and meet strategic goals? Time spent on leadership and governance is a strategic activity that is beneficial in the long run and is likely more productive than reviewing status reports or many other activities that fill agendas. Further, boards should consider investing in leadership mentoring and training for board members. It’s also paramount to have a strong orientation process for all new board members, but a mentor can help well beyond that initial meeting.
A good board succession strategy demonstrates to members and stakeholders that the organization is run effectively and has a plan to have the right people in place to guide the organization. That type of continuity is essential to meeting strategic objectives. “It is easy to get complacent when you have good leaders in place, but it is probably the best time to be sure you have your succession plan in place,” Kelsey says.