Succession Planning as Continuity of Mission: December Integrity Conversation (Summary)

For the past several months, a practice cohort focused on succession planning has been working alongside Creating the Future’s Integrity Body (aka our board). Or at least we began by thinking about “succession planning.” After asking just the first few questions in Catalytic Thinking, the focus moved quickly to what succession planning makes possible. The answer: Continuity of Mission.

You can see the prior discussions of this topic from our October 2021 discussion (focused on the question of who would be affected by our succession planning), and our November 2021 discussion (focused on the question of what such a plan could make possible for all those individuals and groups). At our December meeting, we first recapped those first two discussions:

Following Catalytic Thinking, we began with listing anyone who might be affected by our succession planning. From the large list we developed, we chose to focus on Creating the Future’s board, current staff, community, the people who are or might be leaving, and new people coming into the work – while keeping all the others on that list in mind. We then discussed what succession / continuity planning could make possible for all those groups, being mindful that succession of key employees is just one aspect of ensuring the continuity of our mission. Those high potential outcomes included creating a sense of calm, alleviating fear, knowing what to expect during transition and after, codifying culture; and creating a sense of “we got this.”

From there, our December conversation focused on what succession planning makes possible for new people coming into the organization. The following is a summary of that conversation. You can listen to the actual conversation at this link.

What does continuity planning make possible for the new people stepping in?

  • Continuity of mission; there is often a feeling that a new regime must change everything; succession would set a roadmap of continuity for the new people to follow
  • An organization with a healthy organizational culture is more likely to promote from within, and an unhealthy organization is more likely to hire from outside because the desire is to shake it up. A good continuity plan would allow the person coming in to come into an organization which has strong fundamental core organizational values and a culture that allows them to build upon it. It would create a secure foundation to build on.
  • Continuity planning can act as an attractant to applicants
  • Sets expectations and connects how they link to the higher outcome that is possible. This is not just expectations of the role but also expectations around upholding the vision and the mission.
  • How do we leave the door open such that new leaders will be able to create?
  • Separates out the culture and how the work gets done
  • Explains the why and then trusts the judgment of the individual to know what to do with it
  • There’s an old adage about fencing a really wide field for your sheep: set boundaries, but let them roam within that.
  • Create a bridge to the other stakeholders before the new person ever enters the formal role. Continuity planning creates a comfort level to do what you do well because someone has already created that warm handoff
  • Lowered stress levels, which are necessary to do the work well
  • Manages the snowball (or avalanche) effect, where someone leaves and then work builds up and builds up until a new person comes in and gets dumped on. A good continuity plan would manage this work load either to ensure it’s completed in the gap or moderated in its re-entry.
  • Hand-offs go beyond comfort of the individual to the credibility of the organization
  • When can hand-offs be positive and when can they be negative? Different leadership styles can make an overlap or hand-off difficult.
  • Allow the new person to ease into the role so that they can be their best
  • How we structure these plans and these conversations impact who is actually going to be interested in applying for them
  • More opportunity for people to be engaged and involved, hopefully leading to more sustainability and better outcomes
  • Co-creation – if everyone is getting together and figuring out what continuity planning looks like then everyone has a stake in that person succeeding
  • Continuity planning gives the new person a clearer direction on where they could possibly go. The “why” gives them a connection and a framework coming in
  • Allows the incoming person to not feel a sense of paralysis
  • In addition to what it enables, do we also need to talk about what the limits of it are? You not only have to plan for things that are on your risk register, but as part of the planning, you also have to try to plan for the things outside of your current view (e.g., COVID)
  • In a good plan, there would never be someone coming in “cold”
  • Transparency – in a good plan, there aren’t hidden things and there is no surprise. For strong continuity, there needs to be stronger organizational continuity to the world as well
  • It enables the board to emerge from their own self-denial regarding the situation of the organization. It forces the board to articulate what they actually want.

In order for that high potential outcome to be a reality, what conditions would need to be in place?

  • Honesty – the staff and board need to be honest about the work
  • Accurate policies and procedures – knowing what’s already there and creating what needs to be
  • A team around the person coming in. There needs to be the right people in other roles who understand the mission, the day-to-day, and who are committed to supporting the new person
  • Foundational documents that codify the why, the cultures, the values, etc.
  • A process for meeting the other people, board, staff, etc. It’s important to be intentional about getting to know the people who are embedding in the organization
  • RESOURCE: How User Manuals Foster Team Development
  • Good fit between the new person and the organizational culture
  • Mechanisms need to be in place for the new person to have or gain the history and knowledge about the organization
  • Support – the new person needs to be given time to build relationships with the people who have their back
  • Built-in time for the new person to respond to the unexpected
  • Processes for managing the work in that built up between people
  • A period of time where the new person is supported regardless of success, in order to shift the culture and long-term vision
  • Creating the time to develop plans from the very beginning
  • Trust between the leader and the board, and also between the leader and staff. This takes time so there also needs to be some faith as trust develops.
  • Built-in time during hiring, meeting the organization, etc. to begin to build trust
  • Operating at a human pace
  • Transparency leads to trust and allows the organization to identify allies. It also opens the organization to the community at the same times as opening the organization to itself
  • The first thing the new person needs is to feel safe, then included, then valued
  • It needs to start from the very beginning – What does HR and onboarding look like? What is your culture around involving and including a new person and helping them feel valued? Does your culture support investing time in relationships?
  • To be able to manage the avalanche effect, you need to understand not just what needs to get done, but also what it takes to do it
  • A successful approach to succession and continuity needs to include offloading just as much as it includes onloading
  • Make room for the idea that a new person will bring their own strengths and skills
  • There has to be redundancy built into the organization. Continuity planning is for the organization and not for a role.

As we do at the close of every meeting, we asked each participant in the conversation to share their reflections. What stood out to each of us from the conversation?

  • The “5 P’s” – practice, preparation, etc. We do more and better when we’re more prepared
  • Why does poor practice keep happening? What is the disconnect between knowing what the answers are and putting them into practice?
  • There is some core simplicity to the questions that make them difficult to ask. Continuity – what do you want to continue and is there efficacy in it? Succession – success for whom?
  • The practice of Catalytic Thinking. We need to keep taking steps back; it’s not about succession planning, succession planning is a tool towards continuity of mission
  • Thinking a lot about what can be removed from your plate
  • Safety, inclusion, and value is what all human beings survive on. If that’s what it’s going to take, then what will that make possible?
  • We always need to start at the beginning; let’s not wait until the end to start having these conversations
  • Dignity, justice, and belonging as mirrors to safety, inclusion, and value
  • It all comes back to people. Always thinking about how to share these learnings with people in ways that will resonate with them
  • It’s about the people, not the thing. So many of these discussions are about the doing – getting the tasks done – but it’s about the people, the relationships that need to be built and what it takes to sustain that.
  • There’s a lot of work to do still
  • Thinking at every stage – “Is this honest to who we are?” as a check and balance
  • Thinking back to the “why,” as this leads to values. Trust takes time and intent, if those three aren’t together then it becomes very difficult to move forward.
  • None of our tools were created for social change. We’ve spent a very long time taking the human out of the business. Poor practices keep happening because our systems have been designed to do so.

At our January 2022 meeting, we will continue the conversation, digging into the conditions that must be in place for our desired results to be reality. We hope you’ll join us for that conversation! 


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