Succession planning: Stewardship and Mentoring

by John McCann

One of the most significant challenges currently facing most, if not all, of ACB's state and special-interest affiliates is the need for effective succession planning.  Unfortunately, this challenge is too often ignored or deferred due to the press of more immediate business, but failure to successfully meet this challenge can threaten an affiliate's very existence.  For this reason, I firmly believe that every affiliate needs to develop a succession plan and to then see that it receives the resources necessary to assure that it can achieve its goal of delivering the next group of affiliate leaders.

In broad terms, the two core components of any effective succession planning strategy are "stewardship" and "mentoring."  The current leaders of your affiliate, whether serving in elected or appointed positions, are its stewards.  They carry out their duties and responsibilities for the benefit of the organization.  Now, my point here is not to merely state that which should be patently obvious, but, in the specific context of this discussion, to stress that the members of your current leadership cadre need to keep this perspective ever-present in their minds, particularly with respect to the management of critical organizational functions.  Simply put, those responsible for handling these functions can sometimes adopt an attitude of "ownership" rather than "stewardship," especially in cases where they have been doing so for many years.  This is a natural enough tendency, and, insofar as it tends to assure that such responsibilities are carried out conscientiously, this is a positive thing, but this "territorial" perspective can create problems when it comes time to relinquish the duties to someone new.  In order to promote a sense of "stewardship" in these instances, I believe that an affiliate board should take an active role in establishing some uniform practices and procedures for the administration of critical organizational functions.  This also creates continuity and regularity, particularly with respect to record-keeping.  For example, it avoids the scenario whereby financial statements from different time periods are in such different formats that meaningful comparisons between fiscal years becomes difficult or impossible.

Having thus established a healthy degree of procedural continuity, the next step in your succession plan is to effectively mentor the upcoming generation of affiliate leaders.  Presumably, the membership can readily achieve a consensus in spotting those with clear leadership potential; i.e., those who have a true dedication to the mission of your affiliate and who likewise have the talents and skills to make meaningful contributions to the organization.  Once these individuals have been identified, the next step is to cultivate their particular talents and to assist them in developing their skills.  In the business world context, we've all heard the expression: "grooming one's successor."  Well, the same dynamic obtains in the case of much smaller organizations, and perhaps especially so where critical responsibilities are handled by volunteers as opposed to paid staff.  Do you have a member who's adept at writing and who has a particular affinity for recording events?  Why not have your current secretary let him or her prepare the next set of draft board minutes? Do you have a member who's a whiz at number-crunching?  Why not have that person sit down with your current treasurer when the next quarterly financial statement is prepared?

Future competent leadership in any organization doesn't happen by magic, and it doesn't happen by accident.  It happens when regular organizational practices and procedures are established, and when those with acknowledged leadership potential are effectively groomed to assume the roles uniquely suited to their temperaments, talents, and abilities.