Back to articles

Last updated June 14, 2016

As a Board, one of your responsibilities is to ensure your non-profit organisation has a capable, well managed Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Hopefully you’ve got that box ticked, but what would happen if your current CEO or Manager chose to leave? How quickly and effectively could you tick that box again?

Successful organisations know that they are at their most vulnerable when someone in a key leadership position resigns. While the required notice may give you time to recruit a replacement, it can take weeks or months for the new person to get up to speed and for stakeholders to adjust. Being prepared ahead of time is what makes all the difference and that preparation is called a ‘Succession Plan’.

Succession planning is simply being prepared for one person to replace another with minimum disruption. While it is useful to have a succession plan for all your key personnel, it is absolutely crucial to have one for your CEO / Manager. Some things you should know or have in place before your CEO resigns include:

An Up-to-Date Policy Manual especially a Recruitment Policy
Do you try to recruit from within, do you use a recruitment agency, do you search locally, regionally, or nationally? How do people apply? How do you make the selection? One way to keep your policy manual up to date is to review one or two policies at every Board meeting. Send the policy/s out ahead of time for trustees to review and ask them to respond via email with any suggested changes. This gives a starting point for any discussion that needs to occur at the meeting.

An Up-to-Date Job Description
Do you have reasonable expectations for this role? Does the description accurately reflect the position? Will changing personnel be a good opportunity to change the job description? As the organisation evolves, so too will the role of your CEO. As such, the job description should be reviewed at every performance appraisal, and where necessary, updated to accurately reflect the position. It is useful to have your current CEO write the job description as they see it, then discuss the differences.

Induction Process
How will the new person be inducted into the organisation? Who will be responsible for the induction process? When a new person joins the team it is important that they are properly inducted, especially your CEO. In addition to introducing your CEO to formal documents such as your Strategic Plan and Organisational Values, the induction process could include visits to see your programmes in action, a meet the team meeting or morning tea, a walk around the neighbourhood you support, and meetings with key stakeholders. An induction process is about introducing your replacement CEO to both the heart and mind of the organisation.

Weekly / Monthly / Quarterly / Annual Work Plan
Are there key tasks that the CEO performs on a regular basis? Are these recorded in an organised work plan so that nothing gets missed? A work plan is a useful document for every team member to have, not just your CEO. If they haven’t done so already, ask each team member to write a list of jobs they do on a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. Each role should have their own work plan, but it is also useful to have a team-wide plan to illustrate how each person’s role interacts with another.

Having a work plan for your CEO ensures no task gets missed in the change-over. Having a team-wide work plan will help the replacement CEO understand what each team member does on a regular basis.

A Shared Knowledge of Tasks
Are other team members familiar with aspects of the CEO’s role and able to carry out essential tasks if necessary? Even with 4 weeks notice, it is not always possible to find a replacement CEO before your current CEO leaves. You need to be aware of this and make sure that other team members have the necessary knowledge and skills to carry out essential tasks if required.

If they do not do so already, it is a good idea for your CEO to have other team members ‘shadow’ or support them in the essential activities and where possible, delegate parts of the task from time to time. Part of the CEO’s role should be to make themselves completely dispensable.

An Up-to-Date Database / Relationship Management System
Are details for all of the CEO’s key relationships recorded? What is the relationship history? What are the contact preferences? Ideally your current CEO will be able to introduce the replacement CEO to all your major stakeholders, but this isn’t always possible. At the very least there needs to be an up to date database that outlines all the key relationships in detail. The more information that is included, the better.

Shared Relationships
Will principal donors and other stakeholders be happy to communicate with someone other than the current CEO? Will key stakeholders be prepared to continue supporting the organisation if the CEO leaves your organisation? Do they have relationships with other members of your team?

Often a CEO becomes the face of the organisation and when they leave, key supporters also leave with them. To minimise the risk of this happening, you need to make sure that key stakeholders have a relationship with more than one person in your organisation. Encourage your CEO to take other team members to meetings and networking events, and give other people a chance to be the public face of the organisation from time to time.

Other things to consider include:

A Transition Communication Plan
Which stakeholders need to be contacted about the transition, why and by whom?

An Up-to-Date Procedures Manual
Do you have step-by-step instructions for carrying out key tasks for this role? Are there instructions outlined for simple day-to-day tasks that others take for granted?

A Central Place for all Organisational Documents
Do you have a shared filing system online and off? Are all of the CEO’s documents accessible if they had to leave unexpectedly? Are relevant passwords recorded and held by the Chair?

An Understanding of the ‘Team Personality Profile’
What is the personality / behaviour profile of the team? Introvert / Extrovert? Big Picture Thinkers / Detailed Planners? Asides from skill set, what personality type is required for this role?

An Understanding of the ‘Team Skill Profile’
In addition to position based skills, what other skills do team members have? How will this influence the skill priorities for the replacement CEO?

A Record of the Organisations History
Will important stories and institutional knowledge be lost if the current CEO leaves? Is there are process for regularly recording organisational milestones?

Getting all these things in place will take some time, so you need to start now – before your CEO resigns. In preparing for succession, it is important that you reassure your current CEO that their job is safe and that this plan is not a call for them to move on. It is simply about preparing for the future in a logical and systemised way.

If you think this article would be useful for your members, you are welcome to use it on your website or in your newsletter. We just ask that you let us know where it is being used, and that you acknowledge our website at the bottom of the article. If you are using the article online, please include a link to our homepage.