View from the Board Chair: Succession Planning Is Critical to Leadership Transitions

By Stefan Anderson    //    Volume 21,  Number 1   //    January/February 2013

Planning for leadership transitions at university foundations is a governance imperative of the highest order. The Ball State University Foundation understood this all too well, knowing that David Bahlmann, the foundation’s respected chief executive officer, would retire in early 2013, after 22 years in that position.

We faced a concurrent transition in volunteer leadership, with my term ending and a new board chair rising to the position I have held for two years. Our foundation has been deeply invested in ensuring that both leadership transitions are smooth, and our planning may be of interest to other boards.

Volunteer leadership transitions should be as seamless as possible if executive leadership transitions are to be successful. As with many foundation boards, our transition was assisted by a system that requires assuming chairmanship of various foundation committees before rising to the position of board chair. We also are intentional about training our volunteer leaders. Their “school” is AGB’s annual Foundation Leadership Forum. Our board chairs typically attend one or two of these conferences before taking the top position. AGB is our partner in informing and energizing volunteer leadership, which helps to ensure these smooth transitions.

However, the factor that most contributes to smooth transitions is our long tradition of the chair and vice chair working together on important issues facing the foundation. This mutual consultation builds confident relationships among volunteer leadership and gives the vice chair important experience for ultimately chairing our foundation.

With volunteer leadership transition institutionalized, we turned our attention to planning for executive leadership transition. It began two years before Dave’s retirement, as we identified the stages and timelines for the transition. Our search process was much more than a recruitment process. We clarified performance expectations and identified the skills required to meet a changing strategic environment. Our strategic planning informed our search process; we also received guidance from an executive search firm.

One thing will never change for us as an “independent” foundation: the primary value we place on our integrated partnership with Ball State University. Our new foundation leader needs to sustain this part partnership. The composition of the search committee, which included Ball State President Jo Ann Gora, a university vice president, and the president of the university’s board of trustees, embodied that partnership commitment. Proper representation of important constituencies on the search committee is vital to successful executive leadership transition.

Our successful search brought us a new CEO whose more than two decades in higher education includes five years as the leader of a national nonprofit organization and foundation. A key transition consideration was the overlap between the incoming and outgoing CEOs. Too much time could get messy and blur the transition. Too little could rob the incoming CEO of important preparation. Our decision was an overlap of one month.

Of course, succession planning is only as good as the transition it leads up to. That transition is happening now, aided by our implementation team (the incoming and outgoing CEOs, the board chair, and the immediate past chair). The roles of the retiring and incoming executives are crucial during this transition. Our new CEO will solidify relationships with our constituencies, listening and learning while being aspirational in spirit but evolutionary in process. Dave will complete as many major projects as possible, encourage new thinking about old processes, and visibly endorse his successor’s leadership. He has described his role as “moving out but being available if called.”

Planning and executing smooth leadership succession is vital to a foundation fulfilling its mission. It is a product of effective governance and provides an opportunity to deepen board engagement and focus on institutional vision. Effective leadership transitions involve four elements: succession planning as an ongoing board activity; a thoughtful and detailed search and selection process; planning for the incoming leader’s early, meaningful engagement with various constituencies; and the incoming leader’s informed initiative, supported by the outgoing leader.

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