Why CEO Succession Planning Matters More Now

Leaders don’t like thinking about their exits. But planning for an eventual departure keeps an association stable—and supports future leaders as well.

It’s a truism in the sports world that coaches are “hired to be fired.” Every manager goes into the job knowing that their tenures likely won’t be very long. The adage doesn’t generally apply to association leaders; you’re not asked to deliver trophies, and CEO tenures tend to run longer than those of corporate execs (and a lot of NFL coaches). That dynamic might be changing, though. According to a new report from the consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles, association CEOs should expect their stints to shorten in coming years.

“The average tenure of a corporate CEO is 7.4 years, and we expect to start to see similar tenures in associations,” says the report. “We believe today’s association CEO needs a very different mix of leadership skills as well as very high resilience and agility to keep pace.”

The core of the article emphasizes the importance of succession planning as part of that mix, and suggests that more associations are doing it. According to the firm’s own research, more than half of associations have started a succession planning process early—either immediately after a new CEO’s arrival, or more than five years out from their expected departure.

That’s good news: As Heart Rhythm Society CEO Pat Blake notes in the article, “succession planning is a form of risk management.” But that approach means that, like every other risk management policy, there needs to be a considered process around it.

The board’s charge is to find a successor who will best perpetuate the association’s culture.

That can get complicated with succession planning. How will the process handle internal and external candidates? What role, if any, will the current CEO play in choosing a successor? What skill sets should the hiring committee be looking at? (The unkillable association-pro vs. industry-expert debate comes into play here.) How much advance planning can you do when economic, social, and industry factors keep changing?

One way to simplify all of these concerns, the report suggests, is to ask a more basic question: What is the culture of your organization? Identifying that big question makes addressing those specific questions more straightforward. As Blake says, the board’s charge is to find “a successor who will best perpetuate the culture. This could be an internal candidate, as that person will already know the culture.”

But not necessarily, so the most effective process will likely be a combination of laying down some clear bedrock principles while also building a plan to support potential internal candidates. Good professional development programs bolster your best people, and provides some reassurance that the organization will have some support during a transition. Or even just a reputation as a place that develops good leaders. As one executive says in the article: “The role of a leader is to help your staff develop the skills that can be transferred elsewhere if there aren’t any openings within your organization.”

But even if you get a grip on your internal culture and invest deeply on professional development, succession planning still requires regular attention. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, for instance, looks at its succession plan annually, factoring in compensation, professional development plans, and reorganization of senior roles. 

It’s an uncomfortable conversation, to be sure. A leader’s job is to project stability at the top, and a succession plan, by definition, acknowledges that who’s on top can change. But it also communicates to members, staff, and other stakeholders that they have the organization’s best interests at heart, and those of the people beyond the corner office.

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