Friday, June 7, 2013

Graveyards and Succession Plans

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle once said.

The general, statesman and president of France (1959-1969) also complained, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” (But that’s for another blog.)

If your CEO is the founder (or through longevity and competency your CEO has attained founder-level status), 
then it’s likely that your 
board is reticent about 
discussing the S-word: Succession.

Several years ago, a founder called me, and in the first 10 minutes of the call, I asked him, “Who can fire you?”

First came the nervous laugh, and then the admission. “Um. Ah. Well…actually, the board can’t fire me. I’m the founder,” he admitted.

Legally, I’m guessing his answer was incorrect since the bylaws of most nonprofits give the board the option of terminating its CEO. Objectively though, he knew the culture. Few board members, recruited by founders, are willing to pull the plug on their leader.

The larger point, of course, is not if founders can be fired, but if founders will be accountable to their boards. And thus this discussion becomes more spiritual than organizational.

In my consulting work with boards and their founder/CEOs, I’ve learned that each situation is unique and none are wholly healthy.  Dig deep enough with board members, staff, donors (and sometimes with a founder’s spouse or adult children) and you’ll uncover some angst. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I urge Christ-centered board members—and their founder/CEOs—to get the discussion onto the board table in the early years—so it’s not a train wreck in the later years.
     • First, whose ministry is this? Per R. Scott Rodin’s insight, is your founder a steward leader or an owner-leader? (The roots of healthy ministries must be Christ-centered, not leader-centered.)
     • Is there a succession plan for emergencies? What’s the scenario if our founder is hit by a bus? (We’d be sad, of course, but what’s next?)
     • What are the agreed-upon steps in a succession plan if our founder/CEO resigns? What if the board asks for his or her resignation—and what’s the agreed-upon protocol for this? Do we all agree—up front—that we have the spiritual discernment and maturity to honor God in this delicate process?

We love and salute founders! They heard from God. They launched something bold to fill a need. They recruited board members, staff, volunteers and donors. They often sacrificed. With God’s blessing, they made it happen! So it’s only natural that founders often tilt toward George Burns’ tongue-in-cheek comment:
“If you live to be 100, you've got it made.
Very few people die past that age.”

Yet God-honoring founders know they are not indispensable. They know their days are numbered. God-honoring board members and founders create a culture where the S-word can be addressed in healthy ways. 

QUESTION: What is the next step in approving or re-visiting your CEO succession plan?

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