Succession Planning vs Continuity of Mission: November Integrity Conversation (Summary)

As Creating the Future steps into a larger role in supporting systems change in the world, it is important that we move beyond dependency on our founders. To that end, we have been discussing a topic that many organizations avoid: Succession Planning. 

Not that our founders are going anywhere. But in their words, “Any organization doing important work must ensure that work can continue if a key employee leaves.” This is therefore not just about founders, but about key roles in any organization.

As we do with everything, we have been considering succession planning through the lens of Catalytic Thinking. And even though the following summarizes only the second of our two conversations so far, our thinking has already shifted dramatically as we consider the real issues at the heart of “succession planning.” (You can see the summary of our first discussion here.)

Following the questions of Catalytic Thinking, this is what has been jumping out at all of us in these discussions:

  • The highest potential outcome for “succession planning” in not replacing one person with another person, but continuity of the mission. Succession planning – the concern for smooth transition if a key person leaves – is one of many conditions for success in ensuring that continuity. But that smooth succession is not the ultimate goal – it is simply one of many factors that will lead to the ultimate goal of mission continuity.
  • To that end, this process will be about continuity of our values, our vision, and our mission. It will be about codifying systems vs. replacing one individual with another. 
  • Mostly, it will mean rethinking everything about how organizations have traditionally addressed (or failed to address) succession and transition.

The following are details from the November discussion. If you find this topic of interest, we hope you will join us for our December meeting, as we continue this conversation.

What does succession planning make possible? What is the best possible outcome for having a succession plan?

  • Knowing that there is someone with the same passion for what we do and for our mission
  • Capturing what we’re doing right
  • The values and culture of the organization can be maintained and enhanced so the organization can move into a new chapter without fear
  • Sustainability – not just for the organization itself but also for the people who are active in it.
  • Making the most out of the resources that are available
  • Sustainability as long as there is a need; ensuring we’re not just sustaining for the sake of sustaining
  • As human beings we all find change difficult, so good succession planning takes as a starting point that change can be refreshing and necessary
  • Co-creation; it makes all the people a part of the process
  • Inclusion and engagement
  • The highest possibility is that it frees us from fear
  • It standardizes the systems within an organization. It separates the way an individual does things from the processes that the organization needs.
  • Infuses self-care throughout the organization to build a culture of kindness and compassion from top to bottom
  • There’s a tendency to see succession planning as replacing A Person with Another Person, instead of codifying culture
  • As human beings we exist in the future more than we exist anywhere else; we are constantly worried about tomorrow and everything we do today is in response to that. When we talk about succession planning we are also talking about control of the future. So good succession planning would involve creating a system that allows individuals to let go of that need for control.
  • Traditional succession planning often relies on domination and control instead of trusting partnership and collaboration to lead the process.
  • Change mindset from organizations to organisms.
  • You need redundancies in place. Succession planning makes possible to create redundancy and survival by trusting that there are people who can pick up the work in your absence
  • Rather than job descriptions, starting to build a fluid system around roles. This would make it possible to focus on systems rather than individuals.
  • Succession planning makes possible to create and codify systems and culture to ensure that you’re never dependent on one person
  • To create systems that create calm and build a sense of “we’ve got this”
  • Continuity as opposed to succession. If we are thinking about this from a systems perspective, it’s the system that needs to continue, not the individual that needs to be succeeded.
  • If we can all synchronize to the vibration of the founder, then it ripples out, it’s no longer dependent on any one individual
  • A founder (or anyone else who has been with an organization for a long time) holds the space for always walking the talk of the values. Succession planning balances walking the line between your organizational values and fear.
  • Continuity of values
  • A thought about trees – you can lose 10% of the leaves of a tree without any impact on the life of the tree. This is continuity. Succession is planting young trees around an old tree that is going to die.
  • Perhaps succession is one of the conditions that leads to continuity
  • Succession planning can make possible for the community to re-evaluate whether the work of the organization is needed in the community
  • Integrates strategic planning, financial planning, and succession planning. They all go together
  • For the community: creates competence and predictability that the benefit of the organization will continue
  • Confidence and trust that the organization is going to be able to continue to live up to its mandate
  • The trust that we build in relationship with communities has a pathway to continue
  • Relationships and trust are with people, not organizations. So good succession planning relies on a web of trust, an ecosystem.
  • Systematizing relationship, engagement, and trust so that this is not embodied in one person
  • Including everyone who is impacted. In many ways, the community is the biggest group that is impacted, but they are often not engaged in succession planning. Good succession planning re-engages the organization with the community and perhaps even engages them in a way that they haven’t been engaged before.
  • Relationship and engagement as a way of being rather than as one person’s job description
  • A sense of calm and inclusion within the organization
  • Succession planning should be a conversation that is always ongoing
  • Sustainability – what does it take to sustain the mission, vision, values into the future? Conversations about sustainability often begin and end with money. Money is part of it, but it’s clear that it’s not all of it
  • Allows people to focus and move the mission forward. If this is a continuous process, you don’t lose time, energy and commitment as people are disrupted and then have to re-focus.
  • Thinking about death positivity. Death is the opposite of birth, not of life; life encompasses both birth and death. What would it look like to value time and life as finite in these conversations?
  • Nature is regenerative – decay has to happen for something to thrive
  • When we talk about continuity and culture, how are we articulating the aspects of culture that we want to continue? There is often a question around whether the people who are making the decision know what we need.
  • Fear eats values for breakfast
  • The board needs to have as strong a commitment to the values and culture as the staff does.
  • Recruitment of board members is part of continuity. We are taught to bring in board members for their ability to bring in money or connections, but the culture of the board and of the organization must be the same.
  • Continuity can be fabulous, but it can also uphold inequities if we continue practices that are not equitable
  • If we build a fluid system around roles for staff, we should do the same for our Boards. We should always be asking the questions: What are you great at? And how can we help you do that?
  • Creating the Future has been small and almost entirely volunteer driven. As we are looking to step into what’s next, we have the opportunity to really look at the question of: What do we want this organization to look like in terms of gender, ability, race, ethnicity, etc.? What do we need to look like in order to be effective?
  • Deliberately and intentionally reaching out to people who have not been deliberately and intentionally reached out to before
  • We have to be careful not to frame continuity and change as opposing forces. Sometimes you must change in order to continue your mission
  • Organizations often report that their biggest challenge is funding, but this is often not true. Most organization’s biggest challenge is staying relevant. Succession planning allows the chance to ask: Are we still relevant?
  • There should be a process for organizational design. Rather than thinking about continuity planning as a path to change, there should be a mechanism for change outside of this process. Continuity shouldn’t be addressing equity, because the organization should be addressing equity as a core design challenge.
  • What if continuity planning also included how we get rid of people and not just waiting until people leave? If we wait until people leave, we’re waiting too long. A good succession plan would also have the tools to re-align staff as a whole with the values and culture of the organization, whether that’s through separation of individuals or other mechanisms.
  • Integrate succession planning into systems so that the understanding that people will leave is expected and understood from the very beginning.
  • An exit interview at the beginning of the process. For example, during their hiring interviews, LinkedIn asks: What’s your next job? And how can we help you get there?

At the end of every meeting, we take a few moments to reflect on what stood out to the participants in the conversation. Here is just some of what the group shared in those reflections.

  • Building around this idea of an organism or building around people’s abilities and passions and building redundancies across that as a way to build sustainability
  • Organisms versus organizations; organisms have structure yet are living and evolving
  • Succession as structure and continuity as process; a new president without a revolution; a heart transplant without a death
  • Outcome is continuity but succession is one of the conditions
  • Fundamentally, at its core, this is about knowing and naming your culture and really thinking about that as one of the necessary conditions
  • Codifying systems is more important than the people.
  • Succession is about an ecosystem of trust
  • Ecosystem – all the parts of an ecosystem work together so that they form a community, so how do we think about this from the perspective of community? Also reflecting on the word decay; in an ecosystem decay is a vital thing. Everything has to go back into the system. Change is a good thing, transition is a good thing.
  • Dynamic change is a good thing, stasis is death
  • Having everyone here today brought a really nice energy.
  • Continuity versus change. We often use this sort of language to stop change from happening
  • Change is a must
  • Happy to be a part of this group of people thinking together
  • Fear eats values for breakfast
  • Succession as an ending, but also by definition as a beginning and an introduction
  • Grateful to this board

Next steps:
At our December meeting, we will continue using Catalytic Thinking to reach for what GOOD would look like for that continuity of mission via succession planning. We hope you will join us for that conversation!

Photo credit:  Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

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