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Succession Planning , an International Perspective

by Dr John Brothers, International Advisor to CO3

When I think of succession planning I always think about the story of the two traveling monks.  If you haven’t heard the story it begins with these two monks reaching a small town and where they witness a young woman waiting to step out of her fancy buggy.

The previous night’s storm had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step down on the ground without messing up her fancy robes. She stood there, looking very angry and began to yell at her assistants who were charged with carrying her in her buggy while also managing all her luggage. There was nowhere to place her bags and so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was boiling mad having witnessed the treatment of his partner by the woman. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

I love this story because it shows how the quiet power of servant leadership can serve the greater good where a journey can impede for those who can only focus on the negative they seen in daily interactions.  As I transfer this story to the world of succession planning in the third sector, I am often reminded of the opportunities I have had to witness and assist with dozens of successions and how the successful successions were always led by the value of servant leadership and leaders struggled when our small and misplaced baggage impeded our organizations path to impact.

Why this is important for the sector more broadly is that the third sector in several countries and regions across the globe, including the UK and US, is seeing a potential growth in chasm of leadership openings and available leadership.  In the U.S., based on data compiled by CompassPoint, over 50% of nonprofit executives are in the midst of planning an exit of their nonprofit organizations with nearly 20% of the sector being 60 years old or older.  Throughout the UK I suspect these are numbers are similar, if not higher.

If we are to believe that there is a large section of the sector to be transitioning, and thinking to the story of the monks, it becomes important to note that how an organization transitions becomes supremely important.  When we think of the leading causes of why organizations move to decline from growth and maturity in their organization’s lifecycle, the leading cause is due to a trigger event in the organization’s history and the most common trigger event is an organization’s challenged transition between leaders. Finally, when looking deeply at those failed transitions, the leadership woes that were most commonly experienced is a misdiagnosis of the organization’s health and severe cases of culture clash between the new leaders and the remaining organizational culture and/or remaining staff.

Think about this in economic terms.  If we know that hundreds, if not thousands, of organizational leaders will be transitioning in the next several years and there is likely to be dozens, if not hundreds, of these transitions that will be in crisis, causing organizations to move from a healthy organizational state to one that is unhealthy, the economic challenges this could have on our social safety net could be significant.

So, to this potential crisis and in circling back to the two monks, the ability to practice heathy servant leadership in the face of challenging individuals, behaviors and environment can have important benefits to our communities.  Here’s to hoping our departing leaders decide to emulate the path of the older monk and not the path of the younger one.  



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