Leadership Succession Planning: Identifying and Developing New Leaders in Your Nonprofit Organization for Tomorrow’s Leadership Challenges. Are You Ready?

When you hear the term “leadership succession planning,” what comes to mind? If you are like most people, your first thought will likely revolve around how to handle an executive transition at the highest level of the organization. In other words, it’s about replacing a president or CEO who is retiring or moving on to a new opportunity.

Leadership succession planning can, and should, be much more than that. At its best, it is a vital and comprehensive strategy for proactively building a pipeline of leaders at all levels within an organization so that when transitions are necessary, leaders are ready to act. Under this broader definition, leadership succession planning becomes an integral component for achieving your organization’s strategic vision.

This article will describe how to proactively identify and develop new leaders within your organization, how to identify the competencies and skills they will need to be successful, and how to create a professional leadership development plan for your entire organization.

Discussion and input from every level of the organization—senior management team, staff, and board of trustees—is required. Also required is an understanding that the types of leadership competencies you may need in the future may be very different than those that your leaders have today. Your goal, then, is to develop a diverse pool of talented individuals who possess a broad range of skills and personal attributes who can step into a wide range of leadership positions.

There are five key steps to developing your plan:

Step 1.

  • Identify the key organizational goals that must accomplish to achieve your strategic vision.
  • Create an organization-wide table of organization listing every position that has any level of management or leadership responsibilities.
  • For every management and leadership position, develop a talent profile and a set of goals that are strategically aligned to the overall goals on the organization.
  • Create a summary of all management and leadership positions and their respective talent profiles and goals and communicate this information to all members of your entire organization.

Step 2.

  • Identify the core competencies, skills and personal attributes that individuals in each management and leadership position will need to be successful.
  • Consider developing the following “levels” within your leadership succession plan:
  • Executive Level -those currently reporting to the CEO
  • Senior Level – those reporting to the Executive Level
  • Management Level – those reporting to members of the Senior Level
  • Staff Level – those reporting to other members of Management

Step 3.

  • Develop a performance review system for everyone in your organization.
  • Identify the top performers at each level of management and leadership within your organization to be considered for promotion to the next level if a position becomes open/available.
  • Incorporate a 360 multi-resource feedback process that is easy and scalable to measure candidates’ “real time” performance across critical competencies and skills to uncover impactful development opportunities.
  • Create specific criteria for being selected for the program and communicate this to all. For example, you may only want to include employees who rank among the top 25% of performance reviews.
  • Consider utilizing proven leadership talent assessment tools to complement your performance review system, as another tool for evaluating individuals with strong leadership potential for this group.
  • Inform selected employees that they have been accepted into a new “Leadership Council” of your organization (or any other name you prefer) and communicate these results to your entire workforce.

Step 4.

  • Develop a professional development program and identify the training courses and materials, drawing on internal as well as external sources.
  • Develop a unique management or leadership professional development plan for each member of your leadership council.
  • Course topics could include:
    • Being a visionary thinker, emotional intelligence, relationship building, communication, brand building, entrepreneurial spirit, inspirational motivation, board governance, philanthropy, earning trust and respect, supervisory skills, behavioral competencies, budgetary skills, program development and evaluation, performance evaluations, hiring and firing, dealing with difficult employees and supervisors, strategic goal setting, and financial management.

    Step 5.

    • Identify from existing managers and leaders a team of internal mentors and instructors who can be assigned to coach an individual and/or provide instruction on an approved course
    • Identify outside experts who can become part of your professional development plan
    • Identify online courses, books, articles and conferences for managers and leaders
    • Summarize the list of courses and online content that will be available to everyone eligible for the program
    • Promote and launch your leadership succession program
    • Manage individual progress
    • Measure progress and report results

    Developing and implementing an organization-wide leadership succession plan has numerous benefits, both to the organization and the individual employees. Organizations that have successfully implemented such a plan experience the following:

    • Increased employee retention
    • Improved morale
    • Increased performance and motivation
    • Career advancement at all staff levels
    • Positive energy throughout the entire organization
    • Cultivation of mentors and coaches
    • A culture of success
    • Greater social impact to the community

    When applied strategically, thoughtfully, and consistently, succession planning will result in smooth transitions at your organization. High performing organizations invest in identifying promising employees and cultivating their abilities to ensure that the right people with the right skills, capabilities, and experiences, are in place to handle leadership changes.

    An effective succession plan requires identifying the key strategic goals your organization faces, identifying the competencies and skills needed to address them, and identify and recruiting mentors and coaches to help transition members of your team to greater levels of leadership potential.

    The sustainability of your mission, the lives of those you serve, your impact in the community and the values you incorporate into your workplace will all, at some point in the future, depend on a successful leadership succession plan. Are you ready?

    Dennis C. Miller, President, Dennis C. Miller Associates Inc., experts in nonprofit leadership search and board and leadership performance coaching. www.denniscmiller.com dennis@

Dennis C. Miller