In Associations, Leadership is All About Finding Your Replacement

What does a leader do when they reach the summit after a long, hard climb?

They turn around, extend their hand, and help the next climber join them on the peak.

In association management, board and committee chairs can institutionalize this important aspect of leadership by taking a serious approach to succession planning. Too often, boards view their eventual replacement with ambivalence. As a result, associations fail to develop new talent, directors and officers stay long after their passion for the organization has waned, and leadership transitions and board elections result in dramatic shifts in strategy that prevent organizational continuity.

Unlike a small business, associations are expected to survive long after their current leadership moves on. Boards cannot sell an association or pass leadership responsibilities down to family members. So how can your association plan for leadership transitions, implement successful succession plans, and prevent volunteerism from feeling like a job?

Here Are 4 Tips to Help Association Leaders Pass the Torch:

  • 1. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” Your association should look for the leaders.

Identifying potential board leaders and committee chairs is not about looking for people with dazzling resumes. It is about looking for people with a passion for promoting the association, time to commit, and a willingness to do the hard work of leading other volunteers. Successfully identifying future association leaders is about finding the right mix of skills and personality traits. Individuals who have experience leading from a position of influence—rather than direct authority—often make better committee chairs and directors.

Look beyond impressive titles. Coaching a youth soccer team and dealing with angry parents and chaotic kids may be exactly the leadership experience your association needs.

  • 2. Succession planning is like the ocean. Doing it right will require wave after wave of new leaders.

Succession planning is not just about finding your next board chair. Important committees like membership, events, and education need a constant infusion of new ideas and fresh perspectives. Important committees like these are also ideal places to make use of a co-chair structure, which helps trains volunteers for roles on the board of directors.

Chairs of important committees should view their role a little like the general manager of a sports team. They need to keep an informal roster of backups in mind—and while it is okay to occasionally have a committee member or director who is just “taking their turn,” the priority should be on recruiting leaders who show enthusiasm for the association and their specific volunteer role.

  • 3. Get rid of “bad” volunteers.

There is a reason “succession planning” starts with the word “success.” The two go hand-in-hand.

Eventually, even the most enthusiastic, talented board and committee leaders step down or burn out. Their time becomes limited or their passion wanes, and that is okay. When that happens, release those volunteers with love. Have an honest conversation. Focus on the value they have brought to the organization and thank them for the time they have given. Recognize their contribution on social media and on the association’s website—and do not forget that while their enthusiasm may have decreased, their institutional knowledge has not. When appropriate, call on their expertise.

  • 4. Formalize the process.

Finally, every association talks about succession planning, but the ones who achieve leadership continuity are the ones that formalize the process. Set aside time during an annual board retreat to identify new leaders—and make sure the process includes an emphasis on diversity within committees and on the board. Your volunteer leaders should accurately reflect the demographic makeup of your association.

Don’t Neglect the Succession Planning Pipeline

Think of your succession planning strategy as a pipeline of diverse new leaders, just like a small business’s pipeline of sales prospects. Neglecting that pipeline will cause it to fall apart pretty quickly, so reach out to future leaders regularly.

Succession planning at a small business usually focuses on three options: sell it, pass it down to family, or let it close.

Association boards do not have those options, nor would they want them.

Instead, boards must identify and develop the next generation of visionaries—and do everything they can to help those future directors and committee chairs reach the association’s leadership summit.