Succession Planning via Catalytic Thinking: October Integrity Conversation (Summary)

Over the past several months, our Integrity Conversations have focused on funding, and specifically about what resourcing social change would look like if it were aligned with the values we all want to see in this world. You can see summaries of those conversations here and here

Through those conversations, it became clear that our first steps would be to connect with other individuals and groups who are also having these conversations. While we are making those connections, our Integrity Body (aka our board) has the opportunity to look at other important issues facing the organization.

Which leads to the discussion we had at our October meeting, about succession planning. Hildy and Dimitri as founders have run this organization for 10 years. They are not planning on going anywhere, but we need to start talking about how to move beyond being a founder-led organization. And what better topic to apply Catalytic Thinking to, than succession planning?!

We began where Catalytic Thinking always begins – considering all the people who might be affected by our discussions of succession planning – and the plan itself. (For the list of questions in Catalytic Thinking, click here.)

Who might be affected by our conversation about / our creating a succession plan?
● Hildy and Dimitri as founders
● The Integrity Board Members; there is often some denial around these conversations, as it is difficult to imagine Hildy and Dimitri not running the show. It can be uncomfortable to imagine something different.
● Anyone who is stepping into or being recruited into a leadership role with Creating the Future
● Anyone who interacts with content created by Creating the Future
● Catalytic Thinking practitioners everywhere
● Future day-to-day leaders of the organization
● The entire sector re: racial equity. When there isn’t succession planning it can often perpetuate the “usual suspects” being promoted into the role, as opposed to consciously building equitable leadership capacity
● “Unknown future engaged,” the next circle of people who will be influenced by or engaged with the organization, but aren’t yet
● Board members and trustees for other organizations
● Benefactors or intermediaries (past, present, and future) who contribute resources to Creating the Future – any resources, not just financial
● Folks who watch and absorb the information from the sidelines
● Anyone who teaches – academic centers, nonprofit resource hubs, etc.
● Insurance Companies that need to identify a “key person in charge”
● Nonprofit leaders across the sector
● Other organizations that share our mission
● Any entity that the organization has a contractual relationship with
● Those remaining through the transition
● Keepers of the vision
● Family owned businesses – the questions are the same
● Vendors & others with transactional relationships
● Mental health professionals in support of safe space

The group then stepped into Listening, talking about and observing the issues surrounding Succession Planning, as each person has experienced it. This is a big part of creating that safe space!

What are the issues you have experienced around succession planning? Why is this such a big deal?
● There is a natural tension between acknowledging transition and controlling transition.
● We don’t give enough room for people in leadership to candidly speak about what they need and, in so doing, we don’t really allow leadership to craft what the next cycle of leadership is. Often succession is used as a pivot point instead of a continuity point.
● A lot of the value we create and store in our organizations is intangible. Much of the reason an organization works comes down to the individuals involved – the knowledge they have, the relationships they hold, etc.
● Frequently when there is a point of succession, it leads to a reactive response to select someone completely different, which can lead to loss of continuity, loss of relationship, etc.
● A lot of the basic logistics that allow an organization to run can be lost – where are the bank accounts, who’s our accountant, etc.
● There is this idea that succession planning is a one-to-one transfer, that there is one leader. We need to move away from a singular leader to collective stewardship and move away from succession as if it is a moment in time. How do all of those relationships and nuggets of info get transferred as part of a larger flow instead of something that starts and stops?
● Conversations about succession need to be human-centered instead of task-centered
● EXAMPLE: RVC has stopped focusing on job descriptions and put more focus on roles. Anytime a role comes up, they ask who is best equipped to take it on. There’s an emphasis on fluidity.
● What is succession? It is some people releasing something and other people picking it up. So what is it that is currently held? If we follow catalytic thinking, we’ll get to this question.
● There is often reluctance to have this conversation: if the board initiates it, it can be seen as the board wanting the leader out, if the leader initiates it, then it can be seen as them wanting to leave. There is a lot that goes unspoken in the name of not wanting to offend each other. The goal should be succession readiness at all times for all roles.
● There is a huge generational shift going on; newer generations aren’t staying in roles for 30-40 years like previous generations
● Succession comes down to relationship and the transition of relationship
● Origin stories are often lost
● Founders often see their role as the keeper of the vision and values and this is rarely addressed in traditional succession planning
● Part way through the process, the person who thought they wanted to be successor, decided that they didn’t. There needs to be opportunity for dissent and exit.
● The next group has to want to do it.
● Transition left a void and the people who were filling the void (the board) were not connected to what the actual void was.
● Often when people leave, they are completely done and the opportunity to discuss the nuances of what they are leaving is lost. The succession plan is not co-created with those who are most affected. Do we even understand what needs to be continued?
● Stakeholders need to be part of this conversation because they are ultimately the team that will make it happen
● We get caught in replacement theory; this presumes that what we have is the best. We need to accept that we will not replace the person who is there. Succession planning is about people, but it’s not about the person. We need continuity of capacity and values.

● Today was the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable in a Creating the Future conversation. It’s not about the practical questions of “where do we keep the keys?” It’s about vision and all of the intangibles that a person brings to a role. It’s difficult to have these conversations without talking about the person. In general, this is something we’re not very good at. If we can give people license to talk about this stuff, it will be a good thing.
● In going through the list of who’s affected, there’s an overemphasis on the outgoing and incoming and not the rest of the ecosystem. However, it’s the rest of the ecosystem that is actually being asked to change. It’s more about the people who are staying in relationship than the people who are leaving or entering in relationship. We undervalue this.
● Most people don’t do estate planning either and this is equally difficult. It’s necessary to know the people who are passing on their vision. It is necessary to intentionally record the “why.”
● We need to celebrate what’s been accomplished and commemorate how we came to be here. This is an organic thing, a community thing, not a singular event.
● Resilience is reactionary, it’s a process orientation after the storm comes. Adaptation is outcomes oriented. Where do we want to be in 1, 3, 10 years? What are the outcomes we hope to see?
● Thinking about the idea of transition within the LGBTQ+ community. There is a richness of learning here. The distinction of living between “no more” and “not yet.” There’s power in the naming
● Lifting up the description of succession as one group setting something down and another group picking it up. How are we also talking about what we don’t need to pick back up? What can be left behind in order for us to move forward?

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

Photo credit:  Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

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