GCN Leadership Succession Event

Published April 17, 2013

Knowing and thinking about leadership succession is important, even for emerging professionals. Leadership change is something we will all face in our careers, if we haven’t already.
Succession Planning Expert Series | April 2013With that in mind, I was happy to attend an event on April 16th about these challenges. The Georgia Center for Nonprofits (GCN) hosts an "Expert Series," which are events open only to employees of GCN member organizations. This one was called Planning for Leadership Succession: Success Strategies and Live Case Studies and was held in the Hill Auditorium at the High Museum of Art.
The event began with networking and a continental breakfast. At 8 a m , it was a bit early, but most people appeared bright-eyed and ready for learning.
After welcoming remarks from GCN, Lita Pardi, a Senior Program Officer at the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, spoke briefly about the importance of planning for transition, equating a succession plan for an organization to a will for an individual: in both cases, it’s important to make plans before the event takes place. In spite of this, as we learned later that morning, a study by the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta showed that 73% of Greater Atlanta nonprofits have no written succession plan. (Yikes!) You can find out more of the study’s findings in this article on the GCN website.
Next, we heard from Mary Bear Hughes, a Senior Consultant at GCN. She defined three aspects of succession planning and spoke about each one:
  1. Strategic planning: general plan for talent & leadership needs for the future, including specific development plans for each employee
  2. Emergency planning: having a written plan in place in case of unexpected absence of leadership; who/how, written guide (another employee? Board Chair? founder?)
  3. Departure-defined: leader has planned departure; prepare transition plan, ensure organization’s stability, examine strategic plan for priority changes (put off capital campaign, etc)
Mary Bear Hughes presenting some of the steps to create an emergency succession plan. Mary Bear Hughes presenting some of the steps to create an emergency succession plan.
One point she emphasized was that succession plans do not need to define who the permanent replacement is for a leader. I particularly liked that Ms. Hughes spoke about staff development for all employees as a part of succession planning. I hadn’t thought of staff development in the context of leadership transition, but it makes a lot of sense!
Another great takeaway from Ms. Hughes’s talk, was the mention that the Texas Commission on the Arts has great sample plans for leadership planning and transition. I found their site later and looked at some of their extensive tools, which include sample emergency and regular succession plans, exit interview questions, and much more! It really is a wonderful resource.
The last piece of the GCN event was a panel of experts. The panel consisted of:
  • Arturo Jacobus, Executive Director, Atlanta Ballet
  • Elizabeth Adams, Board Vice Chair, Atlanta Ballet
  • Meredith Rentz, CEO & President, MedShare
  • Charlie Evans, Board Vice Chair, MedShare
  • Virginia Hepner, President& CEO, Woodruff Arts Center
Each panelist first spoke about their role in the succession processes at their organizations. In particular, Arturo Jacobus spoke warmly about the smooth transition he experienced at the Atlanta Ballet. Virginia Hepner was Interim Executive Director prior to his arrival, and she and the Ballet’s Board of Directors worked hard to prepare him in advance of his arrival. Next, they set up a series of meetings with community leaders and donors for right after he began his new position, which he says helped him immensely to get on the “fast track” of the learning curve to understand the community and the organization.
In addition to serving as Interim Executive Director of the Atlanta Ballet, Virginia Hepner has also served as Interim Director at Young Audiences of Atlanta and recently transitioned into the role of CEO at the Woodruff Arts Center, so she knows quite a bit about succession and transition! She spoke about when hiring an Interim Director may be appropriate, which is generally in cases of an unexpected/quick departure.
After further edifying discussion from the panelists, an audience member asked a question I found particularly intriguing: what about Board changes after a leadership transition? Sometimes different leaders need different kinds of board members, especially if the outgoing Director is the organization’s founder. Arturo spoke about coming into new positions and finding Boards who were very comfortable and long-serving, which is not always desirable. So he recognized the truth of the audience member’s concerns, but he stressed the need for a long-term, planned process of Board turnover in order to steer it in a new direction.
This is the second event in the Expert Series I have attended, and both have been exceptional. If your organization is a member of the GCN (you can check in their online member directory), I recommend attending events in this series – they are free for members. GCN also has individual and student memberships.
~Rachel Ciprotti
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