Succession and Transition

As the leader of your organization you work hard, you are dedicated to the mission at hand, you are indispensable, you are irreplaceable…Or Not! Sorry to break it to you; even though most of the above statements are true, we are all replaceable. But wait – this is a good thing. Why you ask? Because one day you will move on and want to be appropriately succeeded. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying it will be an easy feat – you are after all very talented.

Therefore, a succession strategy and transition plan are vitally important to any organization. You may not have millions of dollars in bit coin locked in cold storage where only one person can access it like Gerald Cotton, the recently deceased CEO of QuadrigaCX. However, having the right tools and plans in place before you need them helps to ensure a smooth transition in leadership with minimal loss of momentum. This translates to your organization saving time, money and energy, helping long term sustainability.

We embark upon this task with three key goals: Prepare, protect and implement.

Start with preparations:

Getting your ducks in a row. You need to create a general transition plan that can later be customized as required at the time of use. Preparing your transition plan first requires an assessment of the organization’s current situation. Look at what is already in place as far as resources, governance, board capacity and board tools. Including templates, terms of reference, job descriptions and performance management. Do you have an operations and procedures manual? Is there a plan A, B and beyond, accounting for different scenarios?

These scenarios would include everything from a departure planned well in advance (6 – 12 months). A medium-term exit of 3-6 months and short term or no notice situations. Strategies should cover how to deal with internal hires; if someone is promoted up then they must be replaced as well. Establish a policy around hiring from within as an option without going external, or if you would always post publicly even if you had a good internal candidate.

Is the organization okay with a succession plan where you groom someone to take over the leadership? However, you can’t have it both ways; it is good for transparency to post publicly but a waste of everyone’s time if you have a good candidate already working for you that you want to hire, and you go through the recruiting process just so you can say you did it.

Once the assessment is completed you will know what tasks need to be done to fill the gaps in

your tool kit. The general transition plan starts with a task list; HR committee set up, job descriptions, employment agreement template, ideal transition details, exit package and so on.

It will also include a list of board decisions to be made, tasks for staff to complete, hiring timelines and financial considerations.


An important part of the transition plan is to make sure you are protecting both the organization and the team members. Protect the organization by having the proper governance structure, strategies and tools in place and adhering to required labour regulations. Follow the plan, striving for a smooth change of leadership so there are no set backs in the overall progress of your organization. It is hard enough to keep your head above water in the non-profit world without a lack of planning sucking you into the depths.

One of the duties of the Board is to protect the staff. During a transition this is very important to be mindful of. Proper treatment is key, respect them in your actions and by recognizing that letting go is much more difficult than we think it will be. Offer support through open communications and consider the option of professional coaching during this stressful time. Negotiate a well considered and appropriate exit package. Even if your leader is leaving voluntarily and you don’t “owe” severance, your appreciation for their dedicated service should be demonstrated. In addition to financial rewards other elements could be a letter of reference and an appropriate send off. In some cases, where a job description has changed, the properly filled out ROE allows for EI eligibility.


When if comes time to implement the transition plan it can be set in motion quickly, with minor customization. Some circumstances may have changed so do a quick assessment, make necessary adjustments to the plan and explore any current opportunities. It is a good time to do an HR review, looking at the makeup of the team and possibly rework some duties. Job descriptions are often customized to reflect the unique human resources employed at a given time. The longer you have had to prepare for transition the shorter your task list should be. Hiring and transitioning timelines run around 7 to 8 weeks.  Hopefully you have been acquiring tools; it is best to have them before you need them and the shorter your time frame the more important it is to be ready!

The actual transition from one leader to another can be done in different ways but the goal is to set the new Executive Director up for success. There are differing opinions on whether a transition plan should include an overlap of outgoing and incoming staff or not. This depends a great deal upon each situation and the circumstances of the staff’s exit.

Downloading the wealth of information stored in the average ED’s internal harddrive is a challenge. Unless they have laid this all out in a “101” manual (which is rare), then a 2 – 4-week transition period, where old and new work side by side is beneficial. The new ED may be wanting to make changes, feeling reluctant to do so until their predecessor leaves. But realistically major changes should not be rushed into until the newbie understands where the organization is at and which things are working, or not, and how.

As I said in the beginning this is not an easy process! But it certainly will be more efficiently and successfully completed if you are well prepared to tackle the job.  Gather your tools and do the ground work in advance. Imagine the difference between building a house with, versus without, the floor plans and power tools!