Succession Planning is Not Only about the Successor

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As a retired executive of nineteen-and-a-half years from one of the largest Jewish federations in North America, I have observed numerous succession transitions, including my own. But there has not been much written about the role of the retiring executive in succession planning, which is natural, as succession signifies the successor. But through many conversations over the years, I would like to highlight some principles to ensure a more successful transition.

  1. The retiring CEO should delineate orally and in writing the critical CEO job responsibilities and skills to either the search committee or search firm. This should take into account addressing the most pressing strategic issues for the agency.
  2. My experience dictates that the executive should not be involved in the search process to eliminate any sense of conflict or exposure should the successor not succeed. Instead, the executive can provide consultation for the search committee.
  3. My federation recently merged with a very substantial federation. There was a debate about whether we should launch a strategic planning process then or wait until my successor assumed responsibility. We opted to develop the plan. In retrospect, this was the right decision, as any delay would have deferred the process by several years. As it stands today, the strategic plan is a roadmap that can be modified by my successor as circumstances dictate. In addition, difficult political decisions, such as reducing the substantial size of the board, have already been approved, mitigating “political” controversy for my successor.

Free Download: Slides for Guiding an Organization Through Executive Transition

  1. The successor should be hired on a timetable that ensures continuity but not at the expense of a long “lame-duck status” for the retiring executive. As soon as the successor is appointed and attends meetings with staff and board members, they all naturally gravitate to him or her, sometimes creating an awkward situation for the sitting executive. Although this is to be expected, limiting lame-duck status is beneficial for both the retiring executive and the successor.
  2. There should be transition time between the retiring executive and successor for acclimation, introductions of major staff, donors and board members. But it should be as short as possible. During the transition, the successor should have full authority when he or she assumes the role of CEO. There has to be clarity of role and “unity of command,” with the retiring CEO serving as an advisor and facilitator.
  3. Communications announcing the selection of the successor should focus on the background and attributes of the incoming CEO that will hopefully ensure success. But reference should always be made, even if only in a clause, that the predecessor retired. I’ve been told this is not the practice in corporate communication. Other than the fact that it is respectful to include this, any omission implies a “forced retirement” or worse.

In summary, succession planning should also encompass the role of the retiring CEO to ensure a more successful transition. The retiree should be viewed as an asset, not an afterthought.