Board succession planning: six lessons from a leading board

As I write this, I’m finishing up a governance review on an organisation with an exceptionally strong chair. Since his recruitment to the role three years ago, he has led a highly effective succession planning process. Previously, the board had been passive, and there were issues in the management team which needed to be addressed. The new CEO needed to make difficult decisions, and needed strong backing from the board. It was vital that a succession plan was in place to ensure consistent support for the CEO and wider organisation.

I’d like to share the six ways the board successfully approached succession planning.

  1. At a board away day, they worked with the CEO to agree the strategic priorities for the organisation, the priorities for the board, and the skills, knowledge, experience, and connections that board members needed to make the priorities happen.
  2. The chair met with each board member to review their contribution and help them decide how long they would stay. This was based on the level of their commitment and the extent to which their skills matched what was needed at this time.
  3. Their governance action plan included a retirement plan and a recruitment plan to ensure the departures didn’t leave crucial gaps and to allow for a handover period in some skills areas. They used several of the materials from the Leading Governance website.
  4. The chair and two others formed a Nominations Committee, and with the help of the CEO, they developed person specifications for each of the recruitment exercises. In addition to the specific skills they needed, there was a drive for diversity – seeking younger people, and people with experience of supporting service users in the sector they are in.
  5. Members of the Nominations Committee approached professional networks appropriate to the skill needs identified, and circulated an upbeat flyer about the boardroom opportunities. They received 23 applications for the first three vacancies promoted, and after shortlisting and interviewing, they were very happy to appoint three great new board members.
  6. Rather than sitting back and becoming complacent, the board asked the Nominations Committee to continue to meet three times per year and to ensure that proactive succession planning continued as a normal element of the board calendar.

If the service users and funders of our charities are to get the services they deserve from highly skilled, strongly motivated staff and volunteers, there has to be strong leadership from a capable and committed board. Recruiting the ‘right people’ that can work together to set the tone, agree an inspiring vision, support (and appropriately challenge) the CEO takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.  Find a great chair, and support them to lead a fabulous board!

Joy Allen is managing director of Leading Governance Ltd, and has specialised in board effectiveness for 15 years.  ACEVO members get 33% discount on membership of the Leading Governance website (www.leadinggovernance.com), which provides a range of guidance notes and templates for board development

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