Creating the Future: How to prepare your organization—and yourself—for succession

     Every leader is an interim leader. Sooner or later, you will leave. With that in mind, it’s best to plan for your departure. Succession is not about filling leadership vacancies; it’s about creating an organization’s future.

     Succession planning has to begin with a leader who is secure about his or her role and purpose in life. True leadership is always transgenerational. No one plants an oak tree for themselves, but for their children’s children. A good leader understands his or her human limitations and productive “shelf-life” on this planet. This understanding leads to three activities—discovering, developing and deploying.

     A good succession plan ensures that a leader’s wisdom and knowledge transcend the current generation. Succession planning creates a leadership culture within the organization. Hence, everyone at all levels in the organization knows that part of their role is to create and nurture upcoming leaders to one day assume responsibility for their current areas of oversight.

     Succession planning is not just for the primary leader—it is for the organization. Succession must be a progressive work that adheres to the “Inward-Outward-Upward-Onward” sequence. Inward for self-inventory. Outward via honest dialog with trusted confidants. Upward by lifting our lives to the Lord. Onward by way of strategic planning and execution.

     In many cases, leaders avoid adequately preparing for succession, suffering from the proverbial “head in the sand” syndrome. We all know that transition will eventually come, but we often function in a state of denial—which is more comfortable than the impending decisions, planning and implementation needed for effective succession planning. This is not just the case for individuals, but for organizations, which fail to adequately train and prepare potential leaders.

     The major avoidance factors include:

     Fear of letting go of the past. Tomorrow’s leaders must be prepared to lead differently than yesterday’s leaders. They must appreciate the past without trying to recreate it.

     Fear of being forgotten. Leaders often view retirement as a time for doing what they want and not what they must. It doesn’t mean that they will stop working, go into seclusion or hang up the gloves. True retirement is selective engagement.

     Fear of becoming obsolete. Perhaps the biggest reason for avoiding succession planning is that it forces leaders to face their own mortality. No one wants to be a “has-been.”

Choosing a Successor

     Once a leader understands the need to be intentional in the succession planning process, choosing a successor becomes important. However, it is crucial to make some definitions before naming names. First, identify the ideal candidate. The answer to every life dilemma is a person. Create a “Preferred Profile” of the kind of person needed. Ask these questions:

  • What age should the ideal candidate be?
  • What education should the ideal candidate have?
  • What experience would be important to assume these responsibilities?
  • What special interests and preparation should this person have?
  • What about the candidate’s family, marriage, personal finances, etc.?

     Start with the who and then go the what. Rather than looking for someone with the same DNA, determine what direction the organization will be taking in the long-term, and look for someone who can chart the course. Too many start with the who and lock in on a person rather than looking at the horizon and the future of what is needed for the organization. Successors typically fall into two categories: those representing continuity, and those representing change.

Being the Successor

     For those who are assuming new roles as the incoming successor, there are some guidelines that can help increase acceptance and success.

  • Don’t expect things to be the same for you as they were for your predecessor.
  • Don’t be quick to make changes for which you lack the necessary relational equity. All change is a critique of the past.
  • Change imposed is change opposed.
  • Focus on building relationships at first.
  • Don’t think that people are going to view you like they viewed you before you came.
  • Don’t try to be your predecessor.
  • Exercise patience. Acceptance isn’t synonymous with arrival.
  • Build relationships with people who have the wisdom to give you advice from the organization’s past.
  • Take time to understand the shifts within the organization. Now that you’ve moved into the first chair, everyone else is relating to you in a different way.
  • Be flexible and not overly sensitive.
  • Keep a journal of your own transition process to give to your successor.

     A successor must be committed to GROW continually:

  • Grasp the organizational culture, as every organization is different.
  • Respect and honor your predecessor, as well as the local traditions and customs.
  • Organize your strategic thinking and planning while you learn about the organization.
  • Work at willingness. Be open to criticism, value and seek out the opinions of others.

Planning as an Organization

     Here is some practical advice all leaders of organizations should consider.

     Have an emergency plan. No one is immortal. Someone, somewhere ought to know what to do in case of an emergency.

     Consider bylaws. Most bylaws and similar governing documents are written for yesterday, not for tomorrow. Get help from outside consultants. A nonbiased perspective can be extremely valuable.

     Separate competency and loyalty issues. The wrong successor can undo in two years what has taken 20 years to build.

     Planned abandonment. Know what you need to give up intentionally.

     Be conscious of subtle messages. People read subliminal messages such as who accompanies the leader to meetings.

     Think through change and transitional issues. It’s important to understand the difference between change and transition. Change is the external manifestation while transitions are the internal struggles of emotions, finances, family, expectations, disappointments etc.

     Communicate. A carefully constructed communication strategy that considers who needs to know what when; and how communication will be disseminated is critical. Loose lips sink ships.

     If necessary, build a bridge. The successor might serve as the preparer for the next person and might serve short-term in an interim capacity.

     Remember, all leaders will transition—it’s only a matter of when. By developing a succession plan you increase the possibility for success! Stay focused. Stay intentional. Your legacy depends on it.


This article was extracted from Issue 2 (Summer 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.



This article was written by Sam Chand & Dale Bronner



Sam Chand has served as senior pastor, college president, chancellor and president emeritus. A consultant and mentor to leaders of leaders, Sam Chand’s singular vision for his life is to help others succeed. Sam Chand develops leaders through consultations, books and speaking engagements. Leaders are using Sam Chand's books as handbooks worldwide in leadership development.


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