As part of my onboarding when I started at AGB three years ago, I received several binders and boxes with memos and reports to inform me about the organization’s history and strategic priorities. Of course, my onboarding involved much more than just reading reports, and I am grateful to the AGB leadership team, our Board of Directors, and especially our board chair, Shauna Ryder Diggs, MD, for their insights and the time they gave so generously to ground my thinking. The board created an ad hoc committee to help me transition into my role, with Shauna at its head. Although her term as AGB’s board chair is concluding at the end of this month, I will always appreciate Shauna for her wise counsel and support. I am also grateful that she will remain on the AGB Board of Directors.
I mention my onboarding story because many of us are experiencing the effects of COVID-19 on higher education, particularly the staggering number of people leaving their positions. Indeed, the “Great Resignation” has affected many foundations, with unprecedented numbers of board members, chief executives, and staff choosing alternative careers or retirement. Although succession planning has always been desirable, today it is essential that boards and leadership teams collaboratively develop a comprehensive succession strategy for their members and their chief executives, and that chief executives develop a succession strategy for their leadership teams.
Presidential succession planning is one of every board’s most critical responsibilities, and AGB mentioned it extensively in Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2022–2023. Foundation CEO succession follows a similar path, and transition plans for board chairs and committee chairs are equally important. To ensure board members are imparting their expertise, perspectives, insights, and experiences, AGB encourages boards to conduct member interest surveys at least annually to inform both the onboarding process and ongoing board effectiveness. In addition, regular board and committee evaluations will improve the chances that board members make meaningful contributions as quickly as possible. Further, boards should consider how to augment the orientation process with key insights from departing board members, board chairs, and committee chairs. Finally, boards should ensure that their chief executives have effectively instituted ongoing, transparent, and collaborative succession planning for key members of their administrations.
As for timing, many experts suggest that the best time to initiate succession planning is when board members, chief executives, and senior administrators begin their terms. The transition is still fresh in everyone’s minds, and no one will mistakenly link succession planning to anyone’s performance. To get a fuller picture of the process, I encourage you to read the Trusteeship article View from the Board Chair: Succession Planning Is Critical to Leadership Transitions and the blog post When Should a President Step Down? Leadership Transition Planning for Higher Education.
Questions for board and committee chairs
- Do our board and committees have an effective succession plan for the foundation CEO, the board chair, and board committee chairs?
- How should I assist the transition of a new foundation head, senior executive, or board/committee chair?
Questions for board members
- What wisdom can I share to improve our onboarding process?
- What do I wish I knew when I first joined the board?
Questions for chief executives and leadership team members
- How should I engage the board in succession planning at a strategic level?
- What skills, experiences, and perspectives should I encourage my board to consider when recruiting new board members?
Succession planning for boards and executives is best performed with time on your side. Should a transition need to occur quickly, having a succession strategy and plan in place can mitigate substantial risks. If you don’t have a succession plan, the best time to think about creating one is now.
If your board is planning transitions over the next year, consider inviting new and experienced board members and CEOs to the 2023 Foundation Leadership Forum in San Antonio, January 29–31, 2023. The 2023 Forum agenda will include a range of relevant topics, including how other boards have implemented their own transitions.
Thank you for your commitment to strategic board leadership. Please let me know how you have successfully navigated succession planning. Similarly, please let me know if you have any questions about how AGB can assist you to create a high-impact, consequential, and strategic governing board.