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How to approach succession planning

Blog post   •   Jun 22, 2016 11:01 BST

In 1991 Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric said, “From now on, choosing my successor is the most important decision I’ll make. It occupies a considerable amount of thought almost every day.”

It took 10 years before Welch announced his successor however, the amount of time he dedicated to succession planning begs the question if we’re spending enough time thinking about this crucial subject? Ultimately, it is not an organisation’s capital and assets that determine its success but those who govern it. If governance is weak then the edifice will invariably crumble.

Good stewardship is not just about the here and now; it is about ensuring the sustainability and efficacy of the charity for the years ahead.

In recent times, charities of all sizes have become more adept at building breadth into their boards; skills audits have become common place. But what organisations have in breadth they often lack in depth and all too often there is no obvious existing Trustee who can take on the Chair role. This is not acceptable.

If a Chair has a six year fixed term of office, they and the board need to be thinking about who is going to replace the Chair from early on. Foresight and planning will ensure there are people on the board who are being developed to step up to the role. It also means that if there isn’t a suitable candidate or someone who is willing or confident enough on the board, then new Trustees should be recruited.

The general approach to succession planning that we’ve come across tends to be quite erratic, with some organisations placing themselves under enormous pressure and risk by leaving it right up until the last minute. When we are briefed about a role for a new Chair we always ask ‘what about the Vice Chair?’ Commonly, we’re told that either one does not exist or there is simply no one ready. Too few organisations are running their board recruitment campaigns with an eye on potential successors to the Chair.

Not all organisations will take such a long term approach as Jack Welch, but here are ten practical things a board can do to ensure good Chair succession planning.

  1. The board must collectively accept responsibility for succession planning
  2. Ensure the board is high performing; this will retain and attract members
  3. Deal with any egos on the board
  4. Be clear on your charitable purpose
  5. Understand your constitutional processes
  6. Ensure there are defined terms of office
  7. Conduct a formal skills audit
  8. Create a compelling reason for people to join you
  9. Test the market for suitable candidates
  10. Ensure proper induction

Ian Joseph is the CEO of Trustees Unlimited

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