What is a board succession plan?

A board succession plan is a clear action plan for recruiting future trustees, based on the strategic plan, and it is used as an aid to manage potential risks that the organisation might face.

In essence, it’s about future-proofing a board. It considers both the skills, knowledge, and experience of your current board members and acknowledges which attributes you might look for in subsequent trustees in the event someone steps down.

Succession planning is vital to the health and longevity of your board.


So, what do you need to keep in mind when creating a board succession plan?

Both outgoing and incoming Chairs have the potential to be a distraction.

While your articles of association can give you guidance, they can’t always account for the human element, which needs careful stewardship and management.

First and foremost, remember the old adage: ‘prior planning prevents poor performance’. Here are five more things to keep in mind:

  1. It’s never too early to succession plan
  2. It’s everybody’s job
  3. Focus on different
  4. Manage the handover
  5. Nurture future leaders

1. It’s never too early to succession plan

This starts with clear fixed terms for board members. This allows you to plan ahead. If you know that the Chair is in their third year of a three-year term, it’s definitely time to think about their successor, and you should, ideally be working with the board over several years on the plan for succession.

Most boards have a 3 or 4-year term with a maximum of two concurrent terms. The UK’s Corporate Governance Code suggests that serving for more than 9 years may have a negative impact on the effectiveness of your board.

Consideration of a future Chair should come down to:

  • What are the qualities of this chair that have made them successful?
  • What areas would you like to see an improvement in?
  • How is the context different now for the organisation and what will this mean to your requirements for the next Chair?
  • What are the board’s needs with regard to development, diversity, skills and experience and will this require a particular level of skills or experience?

2. It’s everybody’s job

An effective board finds ways to constructively challenge the status quo and work together towards solutions.

This isn’t only true of issues directly facing the organisation you are governing but extends to succession planning for every member of the board.

Board members should actively support the recruitment process by reaching out to potential candidates and sharing communications about vacancies in their networks alongside the recruitment process. An inviting and comprehensive role spec will ensure clarity on all the roles for all trustee positions, not just the Chair.

If you are recruiting externally, offer board shadowing so that candidates can experience the board culture and get a feel for the people and the organisation.

3. Focus on different

Diversity and inclusion are paramount to succession planning.

But diversity stems beyond ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Welcoming younger people to your board is another way to increase diversity, and it can be a powerful first step in your longer-term succession planning.

You may also consider a co-chair model for your board. Co-chairing allows for two individuals with complementary skills to share the time commitment. It also opens the door for someone to consider their first chair role alongside a more experienced Chair, which can effectively facilitate their rapid development.

Don’t be too prescriptive in the skills you are seeking for a new Chair. In some cases, if the culture supports it, there can be huge value in someone with a passion for your cause who will be a proactive ambassador for your work, developing whilst in the role.

Engaging with people from different sectors and fields of experience is also valuable. Diversity of thought can allow for greater objectivity, and a more creative way of framing and solving problems. Always aim to add new perspectives; don’t perpetuate what you already have.

4. Manage the handover

Taking control of the succession planning means that the outgoing board member, particularly Chairs or Treasurers, can plan time for the handover and, in particular, introduce partners, stakeholders and networks. This shows solidarity and lends legitimacy to the new person – which may be important if you are hiring a younger person or changing to a co-chair model.

For a Chair role, one of the most important relationships your new Chair will have is with the CEO. This relationship needs to be nurtured and developed during the selection process, and then throughout the induction process. Boundaries need to be established, with open lines of communication and a clear understanding of the time commitment and how each person fulfils their role. Planning this carefully will set the relationship up on the right footing.

Remember that endings are just as important as beginnings. Take the time to recognise the achievements of the outgoing board member. Celebrate them publicly – it’s another opportunity to showcase the message of your organisation, the work your board does, and to inspire future potential board members.

5. Nurture future leaders

If your articles of association allow for a board member to become a Chair, here are a few ideas to help develop your board members into a board leadership role:

  • Ensure that board members have the opportunity to experience chairing an agenda item at a meeting or can chair a sub-group to build their confidence and experience.
  • Schedule regular one-to-one sessions with all board members to chat about progression and their aspirations. This helps to plan for their development and provides both training and opportunities to gain experience over their entire tenure.

 

Important decisions take careful consideration, time and planning; and this most certainly applies to board succession. Take the time to plan ahead, consider what is important to you and use the wealth of experience and knowledge surrounding you within the members of the board. Be proactive in planning with your board — the sooner you put a plan into place, the clearer the path ahead, allowing you to recruit the right people, with the right skills, at the right time.


Jennifer Horan is our resident ‘board boffin’, having recruited hundreds of trustees to not-for-profit organisations of all sizes. She truly believes that boards are integral in the health and wellbeing of our not-for-profit sector, and is happy to chat with you about any questions you have about succession planning. You can connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn or send her an email.

Further references

Getting on Board: Getting on Board is a charity which supports people from all sectors of society to become charity board trustees and charities to recruit and retain a diverse range of trustees.

Chartered Governance Institute: internationally recognised qualifications through essential training courses and a job board for aspiring trustees.

The Young Trustees Movement is made up of current and aspiring young trustees, employers and allies, aiming to double the number of trustees aged 30 and under on charity boards by 2024.

The Association of Chairs: a membership organisation supporting Chairs and Vice Chairs of charities and social enterprises in England and Wales.