Challenge Number One: Your CEO Succession
In 2019, I was reading the ECFA’s Four Challenges for Governance Boards survey results authored by Warren Bird, Ph.D. With a tagline that stated, “Many Boards Unprepared for the Future,” I read the synopsis with interest. From a survey of 1,662 CEOs, board chairs, and board members of ECFA-accredited ministries, challenge number one was CEO succession. Only 31% of boards had written succession plans for the unexpected loss of their CEO, 21% said they needed “much help” or “major help” with CEO succession planning and 20% said they needed those same levels of help for recruiting and selecting their next CEO.
That was before Covid-19, waves of societal unrest, and the hyper-politicization of issues over the last two years.
Since that time we have seen CEO transitions become accelerated due to the need for new kinds of leadership, the resignations of battle-worn leaders, and the continued departure of Boomer-generation leaders. Many board members are wondering how their CEO is holding up, and many CEOs are wondering if they have the stamina to achieve the leadership tenures we all used to expect in the past. One of the best ways to take next steps as a board or CEO with these concerns is to discuss key questions in a clear and gracious way.
The Board Chair and CEO Dialogue
Conversation about succession and transition can feel awkward between a board and a CEO. Board chairs worry that opening the topic could communicate waning confidence in the CEO, and CEOs worry that opening the topic could communicate weakness, a lack of vision, or a desire to leave. Try these questions to initiate a more helpful conversation:
- Board Chair to CEO: “What are your hopes and concerns for the next 3-5 years of your leadership?”
- CEO to Board Chair: “What hopes and concerns does the board have related to my future transition from the CEO role?”
The Board Succession Dialogue
Many boards have not put in place a written emergency or regular succession plan.
As mentioned, many boards have not put in place a written emergency or regular succession plan. Since selecting the right CEO is the single most important task a board does, “winging it” or waiting until circumstances force a rushed plan puts your mission at risk. Thankfully, there are succession resources from great organizations like Board Source and the ECFA, and many examples of succession plans can be accessed through a Google search. Use these questions in an upcoming board meeting to help your board take its next steps:
- “If our CEO were unable to fulfill his/her duties tomorrow, are we agreed on the specific course of action we’d take, including who will step into interim leadership?”
- “What about our organization or our circumstances is unique and must be reflected in a succession plan in order for it to provide the guidance we need?”
- “What is the next step we must take to shore up our plan and who will own the drafting of it?”
Succession Planning and CEO Search Planning Dialogue
Your succession plan and search process require different disciplines, but should link directly together. The succession plan involves the board, the CEO and select senior leaders, and the search process engages the whole organization, its constituents and the general public. With today’s accelerated transitions, the internal succession steps and subsequent executive search process may happen in a year or less, especially in the midst of strain or crisis. Ideally, active engagement should happen over the course of two years, with the first year implementing succession plan steps and the second year establishing and launching the search process and leadership transition.
To consider key elements for your processes, try these questions in a board session:
- “Do we have an idea of when our CEO transition would most likely occur?”
- “When it is time for a search, will we use a search firm or will we lead the search ourselves?”
- “With today’s heightened levels of anxiety and change, how will we engage our leadership, staff and constituents to build trust in our search process and get an accurate picture of the ideal fit of our next CEO?”
Talking through issues, cultivating a shared understanding, and setting in place prayerful plans are your greatest weapons against frustration, surprise and division. In addition to better navigating a CEO transition, you will also reflect kingdom principles and leadership unity.
Mark Stevenson is the Founder of Clarity for Christian Leaders (www.mkstevenson.com) and has served leaders for over 20 years in board development, executive search, and leadership coaching efforts. Mark is a member of Christian Leadership Alliance’s national Advisory Council.