Planning a change in leadership is tricky.  These are some of the more common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Not taking the time to evaluate the needs of the organization first.
    You are not going to find the right leader if you skip this step.  To do an evaluation, you will need to take time to reflect on the organization’s history and growth, assess the current position of the organization, and develop a shared vision for the future of the organization.  Once that is established, the key qualifications of the next leader are easier to identify.
  2. Trying to name your own successor.
    Some departing leaders believe they are being helpful by designating a staff member to become their successor.  Selecting the next director is the job of the board.  If the board does not help develop the strategy for succession, it rarely works.  When it comes time for the board to make a decision, the replacement may not have the qualities they want for the organization.  They also may feel like the outgoing leader usurped their power, and reject the replacement on principle.  If the board picks the successor and buys into a training program before the director leaves, it is much more likely to work.  If the director forgets the limits of his/her role and taps a deputy without board approval, the result is often an angry deputy and an angry board.
  3. Automatically promoting a deputy or associate director.
    A deputy or associate director is often tapped to take over when an executive leaves. While that type of succession can work, frequently it does not. Deputy directors are often hired because their skills complement those of the director.  A common paradigm is one where the director is the charming fundraiser, charismatic front-person, and/or visionary for the organization; the deputy is a manager who keeps the organization running smoothly, on time, and on budget.  These are very different skill sets that are not interchangeable.
  4. Believing you have a plan for succession (in your head).
    If a succession plan is not written and adopted by the board, there is no succession plan.  Be sure your plan addresses both planned and unplanned successions.  Be sure your plans are detailed enough to truly guide the process.  Be sure your board and staff review the plan annually.
    see a Sample Succession Plan (PDF)
  5. Thinking the job of transition is over when the hire is made.
    Many boards mistakenly assume that their work in a transition is done once the executive director is hired.  Most new executives need an orientation period of several months to a year.  During that period, the new leader should set objectives with guidance and oversight from board members, who should also regularly examine how the executive is fitting into the job, offering help where needed.