Organisations contemplating the departure of a long established leader should carefully consider all issues related to succession planning to ensure a smooth transition. The most fundamental is timing, but other issues include the make-up of the decision making body, assessment of internal candidates, and the agreement on a job specification.
The starting point for any leadership succession is to undertake a thorough audit of the organisation’s current state. What were the initial challenges faced by the outgoing leader? To what extent have these been met? What new challenges await an incomer? What is the organisation’s strategic direction? A thorough Q&A session with key stakeholders is an essential prerequisite, enabling identification of key competencies/experiences required. Additional stakeholders may also be interrogated: Coordinated by an outside professional, senior officials, including board and staff members, could focus on competing priorities to help find the real needs of the organisation. Juxtapositions could include strategic versus operational expertise, internal versus external orientation, finance strength versus marketing strength. Setting qualities against each other helps define priority requirements. These stakeholders can thus agree.
Timing The ideal scenario will be for the outgoing leader to hand over the reins during a period of shared working with their successor. This enables the transfer of skills, insight, knowledge and inheritance of his/her years. This period is measured in weeks rather than months.
Search Committee It is important to pull together an appropriate group, which could include four to six qualified staff and Board members capable of carrying out the mandate. Ideally, the Search Committee would be mandated by the Board to make a recommendation on the succession, which would then be ratified by the Board. This enables the process to be significantly streamlined, panel members to have more detailed and flowing conversations with candidates, and is more user-friendly. This Committee should include individuals with prior experience of assessment and validation of candidates for senior positions. The panel should represent communities whose influence needs to be considered.
Process In organisations such as NGOs, senior posts should be publicised in the media. It is also common practice to mandate a specialized executive search firm. Internal candidates may also be directed towards the executive search team, who will assess them independently, and ensure that their interest is sensitively and fairly handled.
Candidate Assessment Once the search consultancy has drawn its results, it should agree with the Search Committee on a broad list of qualified candidates. These will be assessed further and, enquiries made to reach a shortlist, agreed upon by the Committee. The Search Committee should then meet the candidates, and reduce the short-list to three or four candidates. Final interviews normally commence with each candidate being invited to present for five to ten minutes on a subject such as the “key challenges of the role, and how I would seek to address them”.
Conclusion Once the Search Committee has analysed and scored each candidate, according to the agreed criteria, the Chair draws together the notes of each Committee member to reach a conclusion. To conclude a successful search process it is fundamental to recognise the need to “buy” as well as “sell”. Candidates wish to ensure that the Search Committee is fully appraised of their skills and experience, but the Committee, will also need to accept responsibility for “selling” the role and the organisation to candidates. This may involve, at the end of the process, the Chair of the Committee engaging on a personal level with the successful candidate. All candidates, including internals, must be dealt with efficiently and given constructive feedback by the search consultancy. The Chair should then thank each candidate for his or her interest, in writing. A financial negotiation may need to be brokered and agreed with the organisation’s Chair and Human Resources team. Finally, a starting date will need to be agreed.