Harry Nelson

A time to lead and a time to …: Nothing succeeds like [leadership] success[ion]

My term as chair of a nonprofit board for the past three years ended last week.  The transition led me to think about the question of when it makes sense to turn over leadership. I handed the baton off with mixed emotions.  On one level, I’m relieved not to be on the “hot seat” anymore, happy to pick up some extra time in my calendar, and gratified to see the payoff of the hard work we’d done on leadership succession to build a ladder of leaders and create a culture of shared responsibility.  Yet on another level, I find myself wondering if I could have done more with my time in charge and also what comes next for the organization and for me personally.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how much nonprofit organizational leadership succession contrasts with for-profit succession planning.  While many healthy nonprofits seem to plan for a new board chair ever every 2 to 3 years, the cycle seems to be much longer in for-profit planning, to say the least.  Put simply, in the for-profit world, the predominant plan seem to be for people in charge to hold onto leadership as long as they possibly can.  The story that caught my attention on this issue earlier this year was Sumner Redstone:  92 years old, but still unwilling to name a successor and clinging to control until a court-ordered psychiatric examination finally forced his resignation as chair of CBS and Viacom.  While we don’t tend to save our sympathy for billionaires, this sad spectacle of leadership succession gone wrong was painful to watch.

While Sumner Redstone got more attention than any other leadership succession disaster this year, he is far from alone as an example of a leader who grew a big organization but then could not imagine giving up control and held on too long.  You could come up with a laundry list of great leaders of organizations who fell down when it came to assessing their own limitations and utterly failed to plan for or develop next-generation leadership.  I have counseled a handful of organizations this year on this issue, and thought it was time to offer some more thoughts.

I should note there is a contrary view in the nonprofit world:  one powerhouse leader that I know has held his chairmanship of a major nonprofit organization for two decades.  He made a compelling case to me that the only question is:  who is the best person to lead?  Since he figures that’s him, he remains in control.  The problem is that this strategy is not a recipe for developing new talent or for having the organization be ready for the day when he’s no longer able to lead.  He may be keeping things running smoothly in the interim, but the missed opportunity to develop new leadership is a kind of deferred maintenance, a failure to keep up the systems that keep organizations strong and healthy.  It also creates an enormous risk of burnout that too many nonprofit organizations encounter in volunteer leadership.

To make a confession, when I reflected on my previous writing about succession planning, I realized that even I have been unclear internally on how long I plan to hold the reins.  While we are working on cultivating our next generation leadership, I still have some uncertainty about what the timing should be and what the triggers should be.  I think it’s partly a function of overestimating my own effectiveness and underestimating potential successors, but just as much about fear of what will happen when I give up control.  I suspect that these issues are shared by many leaders.  Even if you shed the “ego” part of the equation, for many small businesses, the issue goes hand in hand with practical questions, like compensation:  being the leader also means having more control over who gets how much.  In an organization that uses a “black box” method (meaning senior leadership figure out what they is fair) for setting compensation, it can be unimaginable to trust other people with something so sensitive.  I’m sometimes jealous of organizations that have a more transparent formulas for setting compensation (an issue for another time).

So what do we do?  Should businesses take a page out of the nonprofit playbook and cycle more aggressively in their senior leadership?  I think so.  I believe deferred organizational maintenance and burnout constitute a bigger threat in the for-profit context than most of us want to acknowledge.  The bigger issue and opportunity is the chance to be more mission-driven:  to create an organization where decisions and opportunities are capable of resolution by reference to clearly expressed, shared values, rather than by unstated values known best to the person in charge.  It may never be easy to relinquish control, but it’s certainly easier if everyone is on the same page about how the organization makes decision, particularly if people stepping down from formal positions are leveraged effectively.

For now, I’m looking for a middle ground:  not setting a firm date on succession, but stepping up the efforts to develop next generation leadership, bringing more transparency to our processes, and pulling more people into how we make decisions. I’m looking for more opportunities to let other people play leadership roles internally. Above all, I’m thinking about how we develop the internal trust and clarity around shared values to make for a seamless transition.  I’ll keep you posted on our progress.  How is leadership succession going in your organization? I’d love to  compare notes.

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