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  • Writer's pictureDr. Cindy Petersen

We Don’t Talk About Bruno….or Succession Planning:

Weaving Sustainability into Succession Planning - A Blueprint for Ongoing Success

IntroductionSuccession planning is not merely a corporate formality; it is the lifeline of organizational sustainability. In the fast-paced and ever-changing landscape of leadership, the importance of having a robust plan in place cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, too few organizations, and specifically charter schools and Charter Management Organizations, are actively engaging in succession planning, leading to potential consequences that could jeopardize the continuity and success of an organization and its impact. In this article, we explore the critical role of succession planning, its categories, challenges, and how a systematic approach can ensure sustainability while learning from the experiences of others. (Note: While the author speaks from her experience and research in the charter school arena, leadership succession planning is critical to school districts, county offices, and businesses in general.) 

The Urgency of Succession PlanningAs the Executive Transition Initiative of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation rightly points out, leadership succession planning should be an ongoing practice. In an era where 78 million baby boomers are set to turn 65 by 2030 and 16% of the workforce is already over 55, organizations are facing a massive wave of retirements. Post-COVID retirements have added to the urgency, with 71% of charter school leaders leaving their posts within 5 years, as revealed by 2010 data.

Three Categories of Succession Planning

  1. Emergency Succession Planning: This involves identifying immediate replacements for key positions in case of abrupt departures. 

  2. Departure Defined Succession Planning: A forward-thinking process for positions with sufficient notice, allowing organizations to assess needs, search for suitable matches, and celebrate smooth transitions. 

  3. Strategic Succession Planning: A recurring, often annual, set of tasks focused on aligning organizational development, revising job descriptions, and developing talent, ensuring sustained success.


Strategic Pre-Planning

A forward thinking leader, board and organization will create a known and agreed upon initial plan of action for addressing each of the three categories of succession planning. According to Shane Parrish, deeper and more complex thinking  - or second level thinking, asks the questions ‘what if?’ and ‘then what?’. This type of pre-mortem thinking and planning is what leads to strategic approaches for both short term solutions and longer term solutions and stability. 

The Succession Planning JourneyThe journey towards successful succession planning requires a multi-faceted approach, encompassing internal and external communications, involvement from various stakeholders, and intentional strategies to navigate challenges. 

Internal Communications and Involvement

  • Board Involvement: Engage the board in the succession planning process from the beginning, fostering collaboration and a shared vision.

  • Collaborative Approach: Foster a sense of collaboration at all levels within the organization, involving staff, parents, and the community.

  • Intentional Messages: Craft strategic and consistent messages that convey the organization's commitment to a smooth transition.

  • Knowledge Transfer: Develop processes and strategies for knowledge transfer, ensuring critical information is retained within the organization despite personnel changes.

  • Former and Incoming Leader Unified: Be everywhere together. Send out messages that support/praise the transition and the new leader. 


External Communications and Involvement

  • Tell Your Story: Actively engage with external entities, share success stories, and leverage social media platforms to build a positive narrative.

  • Community Engagement: Collaborate with non-profit organizations, the business community, faith-based organizations, and advisory bodies to strengthen external relationships.

  • Active Engagement with Networks: Establish ongoing engagement with external entities, leveraging relationships with authorizers, educational associations, and relevant bodies.


My Personal Key Learnings from Founder Succession

From my own experience as a founder and my anecdotal knowledge and stories from the field,  succession from a founder presents unique challenges. Critical lessons learned include:


  • Importance of Separating School/Organization Identity from Founder: Over time, intentionally separate the success and identity of the school from the founder to avoid an identity crisis when the founder leaves.

  • Hire and Grow Replacement Talents: Build a culture of hiring and growing individuals who can replace or exceed the skills of the founder.

  • Strong Organizational Culture: Develop a culture that is stronger than any one person, promoting excellence, continuous improvement, and a sense of moral purpose.


Building a Sustainable Culture

A successful school, as highlighted by leadership sustainability expert Michael Fullan, is characterized by a demanding culture that hungers for improvement, promotes excellence, and holds hope for every child. Sustainability, in this context, is deeply rooted in the organization's culture, emphasizing values, beliefs, and ongoing hunger for improvement. 

The Role of Upstream Thinking

uccession planning should not be confined to downstream reactions. Instead, organizations must embrace upstream thinking, focusing on preventing problems rather than reacting to them. This is exactly where the practice of ‘what if?’ and ‘what then?’ and maybe even ‘what else?’ comes into play. This involves identifying key positions, successors, job requirements, building competencies, and assessing progress consistently.  It’s about being in front of and strategically in control of the message and the journey. 

Overcoming Common Pitfalls

Succession planning efforts can be hindered by common pitfalls, such as keeping plans a secret, underestimating internal talent, narrow-minded thinking, and exclusively focusing on hard skills. To be effective, succession planning must be a dynamic and inclusive process that considers both upward and lateral progression. 

In Conclusion

Succession planning is more than a strategic exercise; it is a commitment to the sustained success of an organization. By weaving sustainability into the fabric of succession planning, organizations can navigate transitions smoothly, inspire trust, and ensure ongoing success for students, staff, and stakeholders. Learning from the experiences of others, avoiding common pitfalls, and embracing a holistic approach will pave the way for a seamless and intentional transition that stands the test of time.

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