Emergency succession planning beyond the senior staff leader

Three chairs in a row

Used with permission thanks to Anita Berghoef.

Every board needs an emergency succession plan for the unexpected loss of the senior staff leader. When the leader is suddenly unavailable, who steps in to fill the role?

Often there is a staff member who is called upon until a permanent replacement is found, or until the leader is available to return to work. But in a small organization where a staff member steps up, who will do their current job? What is the trickle down effect of the board’s emergency succession plan?

A typical emergency succession plan

My board requires that I ensure two staff members are familiar with Board and CEO issues and procedures.  I fulfill that by having two of my senior leadership team members attend all board meetings. But CCCC is a relatively small organization with 15 full-time staff and it is not sufficient that the board has my position looked after. I’m responsible for organizational health and if either of these two people were tapped to take my role, what would be the effect on our ongoing activities? Who would replace them? I don’t want to go down in CCCC history as the one who left the ministry unprepared for an emergency!

I decided to write a report to the board on emergency succession scenarios so they could rest easy knowing the details have been considered.

It’s about more than the senior leader

This is a question every senior leader should be asking because the same scenarios that might lead to their position being unexpectedly vacant (illness, death, resignation) could also happen to those on the senior leadership team. And the leadership team members should be asking the same question for themselves, if only because no one will be promoted when they are the only ones who can do their current job. Everybody needs to be replaceable!

So, what I did was a thought experiment involving the two individuals about what it would look like for each of the two if they had to assume my CEO responsibilities. The scenarios for each were quite different because of the different types of work that they do.

The emergency planning horizon

I assumed an interim period of up to a year. By then the board should be close to finalizing a replacement or, if I were able to return to work, I would have done so by this time (I hope).

The planning horizon is important because some of the measures you might have to take are bearable for a week, a month or even a year. But stretched out to five years they could become unbearable. By capping the horizon at a year, it meant, for example, that we could delay a project for a short period without serious consequences. The time horizon basically set the limits of the choices we could make.

What exactly needs replacing?

Most senior leaders do more than pure CEO work. Many spend a significant amount of time fundraising. Others, like me, do operational work in addition to our executive work. A single replacement may or may not step in to fulfill both the executive work and the other work done by the senior leader. My work might actually be split between people.

Since we track our time at CCCC, I knew how much was spent on true CEO responsibilities (40%). I spend an equal amount of time contributing at an operational level (mostly creating and delivering content), and the rest is a bunch of other activities and, of course, vacation time. This gave us a good idea of how much time would be required of the replacement to satisfy the board’s need for CEO services.

What to consider in planning emergency succession

Since it is the board’s prerogative to select the interim replacement for the executive work, I did not address this issue other than to say that I have ensured the board has at least two viable internal candidates to consider.

What I did discuss in my report was how my operational work would be handled under the two scenarios. Would the same type of content continue to be created? Would we need to rely on non-staff experts for a while?

Next I discussed how the two individuals could ensure that their current jobs would continue to get done while they were filling in for me. This was mostly addressed through a combination of cross-training, deferral of various projects, hiring of temporary contract employees, and so on.

But what if you lose your strong right hand?

Finally, I addressed the scenario where I am still around but one of my two senior leaders is unavailable. What would I do? We did the same type of analysis for each of them.

Benefits of emergency succession planning

Both the board and I can rest more easily because there is a plan of action in place should the unexpected occur. A little forethought really helps you get through a crisis situation!

It also reinforced the value of cross-training and employee development. And I think it is healthy for everyone to realize that they are replaceable. They’ll be more likely to take vacation and build a life outside of work (of course, I’m talking to myself here).

In fact, the best test of an emergency succession plan is to send the senior leader on sabbatical. That’s the proof in the pudding that you have a strong leadership team. My sabbatical of three months showed me that

  • I could really and truly separate myself from my work (I never checked with the office at all except to see how we did at year-end), and
  • Someone else on staff could fulfill my executive responsibilities (thank you, Heather Card!)

So, now it’s your turn! How would you replace yourself?

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