Successful Succession

5 Key Moves to Empower the Next Generation of Leadership

From Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President, BDI

I’m of a generation of professionals when for many the original dream for one’s career was to grow up and grow old within a single organization. If you played your political cards right, were loyal, hustled, and never stopped increasing the value you provided a company, over decades of service you’d work your way up the ladder of leadership and perhaps you might be the “big boss” someday.

Not only is this uncommon today, but one might argue that it should not be the goal. For a multitude of reasons ranging from evolving environmental business climates, to cultural changes, to a deep desire for work/life balance, to differing values of millennial (and younger) demographics, the average tenure of employment at organizations has been steadily dropping every 5 years for the past two decades.

Do you think key departmental and executive leadership is exempt from this trend? Nope.

5 key moves to empower the next generation of leadership

In fact, the higher up the chain of command one goes, the faster average tenure is dropping. According to a national study released by Korn Ferry last year, the average CEO tenure has dropped to 6.9 years. Additional studies report average C-suite terms dropping below 5 years, and some industries as briefly as 2.5 years. Other interesting trends are that top leaders are increasingly younger and skew female.  

The same shifts are playing out in the leadership of America’s ministries and nonprofits.

Given the trust, hopes, expectations, and investments an organization makes in its leadership, it should come as no surprise that much is being studied and written regarding the vital need to retain experienced and visionary leadership in a thriving organization – especially if it hopes to grow.   

I agree with this wholeheartedly. In fact, not only is talent acquisition and retention a part of the impact game, it may be the single most strategic and controllable factor fueling success. The speed and influence of exponential change inside and outside an organization only makes leader development and retention that much more important. And, as I stated in a recent BDI Inspire feature — we are all leaders or leading something, so this core organizational value must play out with all roles and every level within an organization. I’d argue this is even more true for cause-driven nonprofits. 

That said, transition and succession at the leadership level is inevitable. Far too often this handoff is fumbled, resulting in a derailing of momentum (at best) or sadly – mission drift and the marginalization of current and future impact.

At the right time and for the right reasons, leadership succession can be a natural, strategic, healthy, honoring, and a liberating change for an organization.

Certainly, the incoming leader with his or her passion and experience will influence whether the nonprofit stands to be hurt or helped by the succession long-term, but my personal experience also suggests that the planning and execution of the succession process has equal power over how the organization’s ecosystem of staff, constituents, supporters, and the community fares. Even within hearty organizations, leadership succession can introduce a fragility that must be anticipated and guarded against.  

Over the past 30 years I’ve been a part of five major top leadership transitions in a variety of key positions: coming into an existing team with a new CEO, as part of standing leadership when a new leader enters, willfully transitioning out as the chief leader, moving on from an organization I founded and grew, and entering as the successor to a founding CEO of a wonderful, high-impact, and proven organization (BDI).  

In each of these five instances the organization was healthy at the time, full of smart folk with good intentions. Why then was there wild variability in how successfully the leadership transition proved to be?  

With our dear BDI founder and friend, Randy Brewer, graduating to heaven recently, officially concluding our own long-tail and successful leadership hand-off, I feel that now is yet another opportunity to celebrate Randy’s wisdom and share some of our real life and market-tested insight.  

Here are 5 key ways to embrace this key organizational opportunity, leverage change, and ultimately enhance (not compromise) what’s best about your organization in the process. 

5 Ways to Succeed with Succession

The following 5 vital steps are points of collaboration between the outgoing leader (and team) and the incoming leader (and team) that, in my experience, provides the greatest opportunity for a secure handoff of leadership that will not only enhance continuity throughout the period of change, but can build additional trust and confidence in the future of the organization. Perhaps more importantly – this approach communicates respect and appreciation for the contribution and commitment of all those involved.

1. Historical Context – A Clear Understanding on What Was 

It’s tempting to just focus on the tyranny of the urgent and on future opportunities. However, taking time to reflect upon and transfer historical equity about how we arrived at this point – the needs, the opportunities, the passion, the risks, the obstacles, and the key success factors – will provide important context that will inform future opportunities and allow lessons learned to be carried forward.

2. Value the Past – Respect but not Revere

Citing a pillar to his success in assuming top leadership of the diversified global media and entertainment company, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Robert Iger, stated, “We must respect our history – but not revere it.”  

So much is communicated in this philosophy of leadership and change management. The same can be said of leadership change in a nonprofit organization.  Just as few companies can nor should operate in the exact same manner as they did in the past, so too they should embrace healthy change in leadership style and strategic approach – especially on the heels of a leader who deeply respects the organization and those who served there before.

3. Know Who You Are and Why You Serve – The Litmus Test for Future Change

Again, so often the process of identifying and selecting a future leader tends to focus on driving toward an even brighter future. What can we do, together, moving forward? This is great, but an equal measure of discovery and planning must be invested in gaining clarity on the state of the current organization, securing a transparent assessment of assets and liabilities, learning the strengths and weakness of the teams and human resources, and establishing an unbiased and confirmed, wholistic picture of the nonprofit ministry. This is where reality must shine beyond mere intent and a desire to be of service. Then the organization’s “why” MUST be clearly articulated, agreed upon, and embraced by the new executive.  

Surprisingly, too often people with a huge heart for a specific cause will compromise by simply agreeing on the merits of a potential future – a common destination – without gaining consensus on the tools, the team, the tech, and the techniques of the present organization. This invariably leads to new leader-driven change that is challenging for the team to embrace or see the connection to the ministry’s “why.” This all but guarantees avoidable early friction between teams and management or even a lack of full effort that might otherwise result in the successful implementation of those changes.

4. A Vision for the Future – And A Plan to Get There

Ask 10 experienced nonprofit professionals what the most important quality of an organization’s top leader is and 7 will likely reply “vision.” Alarmingly, the same answer will typically be offered to the question, “what’s the CEO’s greatest deficiency?” Most leaders, especially at the point of entry to an organization have a strong vision for the future. However, too few leaders also chart a path to advance that vision, collaborating with the former leader if possible, that can serve as an immediate action plan that will be further expanded over time and with additional experience.  

Perhaps there’s even greater wisdom here to the adage “measure twice, cut once.” With historical context and respect for the past, building on who the organization is and why it serves – everyone will benefit from a well-articulated game plan that drives towards an exciting future and is endorsed by the leader that has shepherded the organization to that point. 

5. Share Your Identity and Purpose – With Everyone!

I cannot tell you why this is the case, only that it’s been my experience with more Christian nonprofit organizations than not. For one reason or another, as organizations grow in size and influence they become less adept at and committed to communicating well internally.  And I’ll call it as I see it here. Generally, this compromising deficiency comes from the example and tone set by the top leader(s).

Sometimes it’s an (ineffective) control tactic – i.e. management by access to information. Other times it’s because leaders become so busy that communicating about both their personal purpose and the organizational identity seems like a distraction, an ill-afforded luxury, or something that should be inferred – even if left unsaid. Still other times this can happen when leaders attempt to maintain a professional distance to separate their work selves from their “real” selves.

Here again we must recognize and adapt to significant changes to both business and ministry environments and to the expectations (requirements even) of staff, partners, customers, followers and constituents, and donors. Today, good leaders – and especially the new leader must bring their authentic selves to the table. It’s more than what one does and has accomplished. Those that work with, for, and around the new leader need and expect to know what he or she is about, what fuels them, and why success is measured by more than efficiency and profits – success is mission critical and failure is not an option because it has significant human impact.  

Ultimately, these five vital steps to strategic and integrated succession all work together to build the most important factor and foundation that will determine the success of the succession – TRUST.

A Word on Timing and Succession Plan Execution 

While the new chief leader will surely have big shoes to fill and even larger expectations from those whom they will join on the adventure ahead, it’s a mistake to fall into the messiah complex trap.  

As entire books on the topic of leadership succession will promote, the first 100 days on the job are an important time to establish a vibe, to learn and to teach, and to post some key and visible “wins” to establish confidence and affirm the CEO or top leader’s selection. However, there’s also too much attention put on the leader’s moves in that blink of an eye.  

My advice and my prayer for both the outgoing leader and incoming leader is to focus on the long-term goals of this partnership specifically in three phases: the season of preparation, a term of crossover/overlap, and the year following the handoff. I think you’ll find that the 5 steps discussed above also fit well into the three-phase approach.  

Honestly assessing my own experiences with succession, in every case both the short-term and long-term success of the leadership transition was in direct correlation to how much of those 5 steps were planned and executed well to the plan. Particularly today I feel grateful for the deep connection and providential partnership between myself and BDI founder Randy Brewer, BDI’s Board of Directors, with our COO Phil Stolberg, and the whole family of BDI professionals. It made all the difference as I boarded an already thriving train and two years later, the proof of this approach is evident in the health of our agency and through the expanding impact of our client partners.

Finally, in affirmation of how important those who are also leading and carrying most of the organizational leadership burden during the leadership exchange – be sure to engage and invite them to be an important part of shaping the future. Never before has collaboration across all levels of an organization and co-ownership of the vision been more important.

“Humble yourselves, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”

1 Peter 5:6

As always, serve on and lead well!

Check out MT’s recent article, “Tune Your Engine for the Race Ahead!” >>

Check out last month’s Inspire >>

  • Michael Tomlinson, BDI CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, CEO and President

    Michael J. Tomlinson, better known as “MT,” is an accomplished marketing and media executive who has developed highly successful fundraising programs for faith-first charities and organizations across the U.S. and abroad. He brings more than 30 years of executive leadership in business and holds a master’s degree in Organizational Management and Marketing.

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