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Greenville Business Magazine

Succession Planning With Intention

Jul 05, 2018 10:50AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Jed Dews

For the past six years, I have served Pendleton Place in a number of roles, ranging from accreditation consultant to associate executive director. In 2016, I provided temporary organizational leadership as the interim executive director, and as of May 17 of this year, I am humbled to move forward as the executive director after the Board of Directors implemented the agency’s succession plan.

Succession planning holds an interesting place in the world of nonprofit leadership; we all agree on its importance, but few of us have successfully developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. Just as it is for our friends in the for-profit world, business continuity is critical to the successful execution of long-term, strategic initiatives for nonprofit organizations, and yet, too often we put the development of a succession plan on our list of “things we will get to one day.” Despite succession planning being a requirement of most accrediting bodies, many agencies leave themselves vulnerable to the environmental stresses of a leadership gap. While Pendleton Place is as imperfect as the next organization, I can proudly say that we avoided the crisis and loss of momentum so common with the departure of executive leadership and remain well-positioned to advance our mission of keeping children safe and supporting families in crisis.

Pendleton Place, a nonprofit agency dedicated to residential, clinical, and community-based care for children, youth, and families, is an organization I love with my whole being, and I can describe my journey to the executive director chair in one word: intentionality. From my very first day of employment, it was apparent that the leadership was serious about sustainability, growth, and advancement. Over the years, the Board of Directors demonstrated a commitment to thoughtful and intentional transitions. Perhaps most importantly, previous executive leadership emphasized the cultivation of new leaders by investing directly in leadership capacities and deputy leadership positions that opened the door for someone like me to learn the administrative skills needed to become a business leader.

With the Board fully supportive of adding the associate executive director position despite the common budgetary constraints faced by nonprofits, I had ample time to learn from someone at the top of their game, to wrap my brain around complex financial management concepts, to take a stab at something as foreign as shopping out commercial insurance packages, and to understand what it means to make decisions that affect so many. I’m a social worker, educator, and child advocate. Because of the intentional investments of my mentors and our Board, I can now confidently add business leader to that list of identities. 

In our experience, implementation of a succession plan requires the careful crafting of a transition timeline, extensive communication planning for all stakeholders, clear delegation of duties, and a seamless transfer of responsibilities. It requires not just the passing of the proverbial baton, but also a melding of visions and an exploration of how the outgoing and incoming leaders can most effectively build on each other’s interpretation of the strategic plan. Our Board leadership did not allow themselves to view this succession as the replacement of a person. Instead, they required that this moment in time be a launchpad, an opportunity to match the incoming leadership with the demands of the future. By valuing early investment in associate leadership, the Board had created a governance-driven priority for succession planning and, as a result, was able to retain institutional knowledge in the face of major change. 

Perhaps what I appreciate most about Pendleton Place’s succession process is the unwavering support offered by those around me and the consistent message to lead from my strengths. In one of the most confidence-inspiring moments of my career, Hudson Denney, Pendleton Place Board president and Net3 Technology partner, assured me that the Board was aware of the challenges that lie ahead and equally aware of the leadership qualities needed to navigate them effectively. Over his seven years guiding our work from the Board, he had ample opportunity to watch me grow and to demonstrate my abilities. In a way, it was the ultimate job interview!

Throughout the transition, Hudson and other members of the Board have helped me find my own voice and have empowered me to lead with conviction and confidence. At the same time, they’ve reminded me that the succession planning process is a continuous cycle, and for Pendleton Place, one that has just come full circle. When it is my own time to move on, I know that our dugout will be full of well-equipped, capable, passionate leaders. Why? Because on my first day in the big chair, I pulled out a legal pad and started working on a succession plan and promised myself that when it comes to developing leaders, I will be as intentional as those who came before me.