Successful Succession: 4 Tips for a Seamless Transition
Authors: Erica Poff, CAE, PMP, IOM, VP of Nonprofit Effectiveness, Talbott Talent and Heather Hunter, Marketing Associate, Talbott Talent
When a nonprofit executive retires, the organization’s succession plan – or lack thereof – becomes the top focus of any board’s top attention. According to research by BoardSource, only 27% of nonprofits have a pre-made succession plan in place before learning of their chief executive’s impending departure. Although it doesn’t take long to create a succession plan, forming one quickly and retroactively puts unnecessary stress on the board and your executive search.
But having the written plan is only part of it; identifying and developing your future leader with plenty of lead time requires foresight and a mentorship mentality. Just ask Jon LeCrone, former Commissioner of the Horizon League, and Julie Roe Lach, his successor, who officially stepped into the position in 2021. Although the Horizon League had a written succession plan in place, LeCrone and Roe Lach worked together for years to realize the plan’s ultimate goal of a smooth, natural transition. We sat down with LeCrone and Roe Lach to learn some of the keys to their succession plan success.
1. Start early.
After 29 years as Commissioner of the Horizon League, LeCrone knew that the success he’d built through decades of service couldn’t be handed off to just anyone. So, he planned ahead, searching for his prospective successor years before retirement.
“I had in mind that we needed a person in our office that could eventually become the commissioner if we were serious about our succession plan,” LeCrone explained.
Although he intended to serve several more years as commissioner, he had already been scoping out candidates to train as his successor. One person truly caught his attention. Julie Roe Lach, a high-profile leader with a long list of accomplishments, had worked for the NCAA for 15 years before becoming a consultant. Although they had never met, Roe Lach’s reputation preceded her and LeCrone admitted he had been impressed with her. When their paths crossed at a conference in California in January 2014, LeCrone asked Roe Lach if they could meet for lunch once they were both back in Indiana. Unbeknownst to her, Horizon League was restaffing, and LeCrone was thinking about succession.
“I asked her at that first lunch if she’d be interested in being the next Commissioner,” recalled LeCrone. “She said, ‘I might be – let’s have another lunch’ and then came back with a legal pad and about 127 questions… I thought, ‘I think I have the right person!’”.
2. Create mentorship opportunities.
Roe Lach joined Horizon League in August 2014 as the Deputy Commissioner, a position that Horizon League created through restaffing specifically to support their succession plan. To train Roe Lach in all the Commissioner’s responsibilities, the duo created a five-year plan that would give her experience with the role’s key strategic priorities. LeCrone likened it to a four-year undergraduate program with a year of graduate school. Each year, LeCrone focused on teaching Roe Lach a different piece of the role. The timespan ensured that she’d experience the full scope of a commissioner’s work.
“He [LeCrone] couldn’t guarantee that the Board would hire me… but what he could do was promise to teach me how to do the job,” explained Roe Lach. “I was so appreciative of the process and really enjoyed the everyday learning.”
3. Make candidates “do the deal”.
Rather than treat her as an assistant or an observer, LeCrone pushed Roe Lach to take on bigger and bigger responsibilities. “Jon gave me a leadership role, empowered me, trusted me, to lead an initiative in each of those [priority areas],” she explained. By trusting her with important work, LeCrone helped Roe Lach become comfortable handling the tasks she’d eventually be tackling in the commissioner’s seat.
Roe Lach recalls one moment during location planning for a tournament. “Jon said, ‘go do the deal.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to do the deal!’ And he said, ‘figure it out,’” she laughed. “He was there at every step, but it was those sorts of opportunities where I was able to really learn how to ‘do the deal’, so to speak.”
4. Get successors familiar with the board.
Around her third year as deputy commissioner, Roe Lach began to accompany LeCrone to board dinners and other relationship-building opportunities. Though LeCrone had given her opportunities to present to and interact with the board, bringing her to less formal settings indicated his preference for her as his successor. It also allowed Roe Lach to begin building stronger personal relationships with board members. As Roe Lach says, “the board members needed to know me and like me, to a certain extent.” When the time finally came for LeCrone to step down, he openly advocated for Roe Lach as his successor. Thanks to the work she’d done and the relationships he’d helped her build, the board readily accepted Roe Lach. Although she formally interviewed for the position, Roe Lach’s unique training made her the perfect candidate and allowed for Horizon League’s succession plan to proceed without a hitch.
Today, Roe Lach and LeCrone still work closely together as Commissioner and Advisor. They have scheduled meetings a few times a week. “Any hard issue, and even the easy ones, I’m still talking to Jon,” Roe Lach explained.
“To his credit, most leaders would still try and direct. He really lets me own the decision and the outcome.”
Their honest communication and high level of trust, Roe Lach says, were critical for their situation to work. LeCrone agreed. “I think trust, patience, being intentional, staying with it – those are good principles not just for succession planning, but for almost anything,” he said.
When it comes to your succession plan, it’s never too early to begin working towards a more effective transition. Whether your organization has a written plan in place or not, Talbott Talent offers an expert outside viewpoint for your succession process. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.