Advice & News

July 26, 2022

Succession Planning, Talent Management, and Professional Development

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Succession plans are essential tools for governance and leadership. The campus president or organization executive should prepare and update an executive team succession plan for discussion with the board during their annual review. The memorandum should specify the kinds of leadership development that is needed and planned for vice presidents and other senior administrators, how to fill in for or replace senior staff members who leave or are incapacitated, and ways to enhance the diversity of the team.

Sometimes, board members will want the president or executive to hire "seconds" to vice presidents who are of nearly equal talent and caliber. This is expensive. Most organizations cannot afford redundancy in senior positions. The better approach is to have a 'second' who can fulfill the responsibilities of the post until a full-time replacement is found. If they can actually do the job effectively following this period as the interim, so much the better. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach by saying what should be done, board members should ask the president or executive about plans for succession.

The board committee on nominations or governance should also consider succession planning for the board, including overall membership, committee membership and leadership, board officers, and assignments to broaden the governance experience of members. This form of succession planning can then inform the composition of annual slates of members and officers for election. Ideally, the board chair and vice chair will have served on most of the committees and will be knowledgeable about all aspects of the institution or organization.

Boards have a special responsibly when it comes to guiding the transition from one executive to a successor. All too often, it seems that successors act as if the history of the institution or organization started when he or she entered the office. Some new leaders seem more interested in establishing their mark before understanding the heritage, assets, opportunities, and challenges of the institution or organization. They seem to have a vision that is neither grounded in the reality of the day nor on the record of the past. The focus is on "me" not on "us." A board mentor can help avoid this phenomenon.

Honoring institutional memory is not about remembering the predecessor; it is not an effort by the predecessor to cling onto the office; and it is not an effort to stifle new ideas. Leadership requires humility, active listening, speaking well of others, leading from within, and fostering respect for the office as well as for the enterprise. This includes leading with the team one inherits to learn the nuances of organizational culture, understand group and organizational dynamics, and appreciate how units work together. This will give the new leader time to assess the talents of the individuals who compose the team. Then the new leader can determine how best to foster cross-functional knowledge and whether adjustments, alignments, or complete change is needed.

The new leader should realize that they have much to learn as well as much to bring. Mission must remain the primary focus. Leaders are appointed to multi-year terms of three to five years because it is known that learning takes time. Quick turnover in the team can be disruptive to learning and to relationships. These include relationships with constituents such as donors, elected officials, neighbors, and feeder school or community personnel. Sudden turnover of key staff can diminish the trust that is essential for leaders to foster relations with these and other constituents. It also can be costly in terms of recruitment, replacement, and training of new team members.

Institutional, or collective, memory includes past leadership transitions, how former challenges were faced successfully or not, why previous fundraising efforts succeeded or failed, the circumstances of political difficulties related to zoning or neighborhood conflicts, and how previous administrations dealt with audit or accreditation challenges, among others. While most of these experiences may be documented in board minutes or other archives, leadership teams benefit from active participants who know the past either from personal experience or from other direct sources.

Generational knowledge not only includes relationships but also systems that are essential to campus operations. Elements of the systems include general information, facts, technology, processes, standards, and the reasons for them. These are often documented so that those new to the organization can know the details and cultural values that imbue the standards. This does not mean that change is not possible, only that change for change's sake is generally neither productive nor long-lasting.

Leadership teams can add to institutional or collective memory by utilizing "tabletop" exercises and reflecting on internal or external incidents by asking, "what can we learn from this?" With tabletop exercises, a team can assess preparedness for security incidents, whether a bomb threat, fire, virus contagion, or other emergency that can interrupt operations and organizational continuity. This is accomplished by taking participants through the process of dealing with a simulated incident and providing hands-on training in order to practice for a real event.

Another method is to convene the senior staff and other specialists to discuss what can be learned from an incident on campus, such as a student protest, or on another campus, such as a scandal. By asking "what can we learn from this?" the team can build its institutional memory for dealing with future events and be able to pass on operational knowledge that is not readily replaceable.

An Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) matrix can be a useful tool in planning and managing. ERMs consider risks related to the financials as well as the risks associated with reputation, compliance, contract relationships, quality controls, and the like. It is a valuable tool in resource management and professional development, and requires cross-functional teamwork, an essential element in succession planning.

Still other opportunities to foster institutional knowledge are in the details of succession plans for the board itself, the president and vice presidents, and other direct reports.

A university or community service organization is a mission-based institution where memory is essential. Unlike a for-profit business focused on the near-term, it is obliged to honor the past as a function of its mission even as it navigates current challenges in pursuit of goals, new initiatives, and long-term success.

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