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Top tips for replacing an organization’s top dog 

Define a succession plan with a smooth transition when filling an executive’s shoes

Replacing a big wig at any organization is never about filling a warm seat, and most businesses are not as prepared as they should be.

According to a CEO succession planning survey by Heidrick & Struggles and Stanford University—which surveyed more than 140 North American CEOs and board directors—more than 50 per cent of companies could not immediately name a successor to their CEO should the need arise, meaning no succession plan was in place.

Canadian international development agency, Operation Eyesight Universal (OEU), defied those odds when it replaced its executive director this year. Here are insights from OEU’s former executive director (ED), Brian Foster, and the new ED, Aly Bandali, about implementing a succession plan that works.

Be prepared with a clear and concise plan

To avoid the “Oh, you’re leaving tomorrow!?” scramble, OEU’s succession plan took place over two years, keeping in mind a few key things: creating a succession team (including the members of the executive team, board of directors and human resources), input from the board of directors, a rigorous candidate search process, stakeholder engagement and a transition timeline.

As ED for 10 years, leading OEU through structural and financial transformation, Foster, needed to ensure that the organization could move forward under the direction of an individual with the right experience and skill set, before passing the baton. The plan developed was not only able to react to the present, but any potential pitfalls down the line.

“Out of the succession plan that’s in place…there are two plans,” explains Foster, 70, who retired in July. “One, if he [the new ED] gets run over by a beer truck, [and another] if he decided to leave the organization.”

The search is on: Finding the right candidate

According to a PwC report, Succession planning: What is the cost of doing it poorly…or not at all?, a business should develop the position, not just replace the individual in place. The candidate should be integrated into a long-term business strategy.

Looking beyond professional experience, OEU sought someone who shared the values of the organization and was humble and passionate about the cause, while also having international development experience and proven fundraising success.

“What Aly brought to the table was a very different skill set for the organization,” says Foster. “You can’t just replace yourself…my role was to build the runway or bridge…I needed someone to take that and move it five or 10 years down the road.”

“They were looking for me to be a fit for where they wanted the organization to go, rather than where it was today,” adds Bandali, 49, who has worked for both the Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Red Cross. “Tapping into things that really drive me and motivate me.”

OEU brought on Boyden Executive Search to facilitate the recruitment process, which included a country-wide search for candidates, narrowed down from 70, to 11, then to four candidates. Hiring a third party ensured transparency and avoided any conflict of interest.

“Because it was a third party that ran an expansive search and extensive process, it helped me walk into the role with the credibility I needed to hit the ground running,” says Bandali.

As for internal candidates, the PwC report highlights that with the proper training and motivation, employees can develop their careers while fitting into an organization’s overall strategy. Businesses can leverage talent and tap into an existing knowledge base. But it must be the right fit, not just placement for convenience sake.

Foster came up against this with two internal candidates. “I was very clear about what my intentions were,” he says. “Everybody on the board knew why I went back to those two people. Why I did not think they were ready for the position and what I told them they needed to do to be ready in the future.”

Hear the people sing: Stakeholder engagement

From an international non-profit’s perspective, stakeholders stretch far and wide. For OEU, there are not only staff in Canada, but teams in the U.S., U.K, India, Nepal and Africa, not to mention partners and donors, both domestic and abroad.

Keeping everyone in the loop is paramount. Bandali not only met some of these key players face-to-face with Foster during the transition process, but also individually once established in the role.

“We kept the staff updated with no surprises,” says Foster. “We spent time with them, which was very important for the stakeholders in this business.”

Leave your ego at the door: The transition process

For many organizations, there is no transition process, nor any overlap between a departing executive and a new one taking over. According to the Heidrick & Struggles and Stanford University survey, only 50 per cent of companies provide on-board or transition support for new CEOs. While, the 2016 Harvard Business Review estimates that fewer than 20 per cent of organizations don’t extend a transition process beyond a week.“When you have overlap between leaders in the same space over a period of time, it can go one of two ways,” shares Bandali. “It can go really well, or really, really badly. There is no real in between.”

For Foster and Bandali, transitioning together, over two months, was mutually agreed upon, and a choice Foster gave Bandali. “If it had not been my choice, there’s room for ego and confusion that can derail it. That he [Brian] put that control into my hands is what made it possible,” says Bandali.

Foster was on hand for support and to help address any issues that arose, but also moved out of the chair, while ensuring that any staff inquiries that came to him were redirected to Bandali.

“I was behind him all the way, and if I needed to stand shoulder to shoulder with him, I did,” says Foster. “The moment he walked into the office, it was his organization, and I respected that.”

Steps forward

For more tips on succession planning, check out CPA Canada’s 20 questions not-for-profit (NFP) directors should ask about CEO succession.