I have written about the need to have a strategic approach to board composition to optimize the board’s effectiveness and to ensure that the right, competent leaders are appointed to each role within the Pivotal Leadership TrioTM (PLT- Board, CEO/Executive Director, Executive Team) at key inflection points of an organization’s strategic trajectory to maximize success. In determining who you need to have in any leadership role of the PLT, you need to know what (diversity of skills, knowledge, experience) is needed, what the performance expectations are, how everyone complements each other to maximize the individual and collective performance, what quarterly and annual performance indicators need to be monitored to better anticipate needed change, and how the organization’s success will be affected when there is a change in anyone’s role– especially when a seat unpredictably and abruptly becomes vacant.
Succession planning for an organization includes making provisions for executive retirement, refreshment for any executive leadership role, forced exits for leaders who failed performance expectations and/or displayed unacceptable behaviors with scandalous ramifications, planned exits for leaders ready to move on, recruitment for new executives, and being prepared for health emergencies or crises that can affect the leadership of an executive.
Step back, reflect and look at the PLT and ask yourself what the inherent risks and exposure level of the organization are if one role is empty at any one time. Would it matter if any of these roles were to be vacant for a day or longer with no prior warning? What if multiple roles were empty at the same time? What would the impact be of not being able to readily and strategically address the leadership void? Has anyone been identified to step in if new leadership is needed?
I want to stress the importance of a strategic approach to succession planning for the entire PLT (for all types of organizations, small and large). Succession planning that is totally in sync with the strategic approach of the PLT to composition, which will ensure that at any one time, the composition of the PLT is as strong as it needs to be to drive the optimal outcome for all stakeholders (customers, employees, partners, communities and shareholders). This strategic succession planning should assure a smooth transition when there is a need for change or if a leadership role is vacant without any warning.
Think of any sports team. They have players who get injured and are out of play for a game or more. If it occurs at the beginning of the season, or at the last game going into the post-season, they undoubtedly increase their vulnerability. But they have a lineup of backups for different positions, and these athletes have typically been trained for different inflection points of a game to be as adept as possible at responding to the opposition. A team’s predicted outcome is likely to be greatly affected if there is a player who is unable to play, but there is always a plan to overcome worst case scenarios with backup players who have been hand-picked, trained, assessed on an ongoing basis and integrated to minimize a negative impact on the wanted outcome. The bench is stocked with players to ensure that the team’s odds to win are great!
Stocking the bench for the PLT is a task that requires cooperation and commitment from all members—the board, the executive team and the CEO.
Strategic succession planning for every role in the PLT is critical, although many organizations stop at the CEO. This is the equivalent of having a backup for the quarterback, but opting not to have anyone else in the second string. Planning ahead for empty roles anywhere within the PLT (and regularly evaluating the effectiveness of the people filling those roles) is as important as filling the roles with the right people in the first place. (To facilitate board composition and a strategic succession plan that work optimally for the organization, leadership effectiveness evaluations become unavoidable and mandatory for all leaders of the PLT as they all are tightly interrelated.)
The best approach to succession planning strategically considers how a change within one role can affect the entire dynamics of the PLT. The board (which includes the CEO) needs to be concerned about the succession planning of the leaders of the entire PLT to ensure that business can run as usual. With this approach, the level of responsibilities for some key leaders within the board and human resources is even more critical, there is a known cost infrastructure for predictable and unpredictable change for all and any leadership role within the PLT, and there is a communication plan framework that is clearly stated for any or all circumstances.
The recruiting of individuals who report to the executives need to also be strategically thought out, taking into consideration their ability to grow and to step in if circumstances (as described above) could destabilize the leadership of the executive team and/or of a functional area. When succession planning is a strategic imperative of an organization, the recruiting of board members, executives and senior management individuals becomes a proactive process rather than a reactive one. And should the organization be confronted with the uncontrollable, proper succession planning should minimize chaos for the business and the employees, allowing them to operate in a state of greater harmony.