Succession Planning – It’s a Cultural Thing! by Don Burns

Succession Planning – It’s a Cultural Thing!
Don Burns

Don Burns’ experience in sales and marketing spans decades and industries. Throughout his career, he has generated growth through numerous leadership roles including a global marketing position for a $3 billion medical device company where he was responsible for digital marketing and e-commerce for 46 divisions in over 20 countries. He leverages many of the processes, systems and disciplines he learned in the corporate environment to help companies of character and faith-based organizations grow through the company he founded, 3CordsGroup. Visit his website to find out more about the services he provides at Don holds a Bachelor of Science degree in international business from Oklahoma State University. He lives in Tulsa with his wife, Denise, and their two boys.

Don Burns

Succession Planning Don BurnsAt breakfast a few weeks ago a great Pastor I know told me a fact about American churches I had never heard. He mentioned there are approximately 100,000 churches at or near the point of transition in their leadership. He called it, “the greatest transfer of church wealth in our history.” Churches that have been launched, buildings that have been paid off, and congregations that have grown  will be handed off to the next generation of leaders within the next 10 years. Where are these leaders? Are there enough qualified leaders to take on this great responsibility?

There is a quote by Warren Buffett from one of his annual reports at Berkshire Hathaway that says, "The primary job of a board of directors is to see that the right people are running the business and to be sure that the next generation of leaders is identified and ready to take over tomorrow.” It is probably good for all of us to ask ourselves a question. How much time do I spend developing my people? In addition, how much time do I deliberately develop the team so they can support the vision of the organization in the future? 

What about the future? Inevitably, each of us will move on from our current roles. Additionally, key employees and vital volunteer team members will leave your organization at inopportune times. It happens to all of us. So, is your team, regardless of the size, ready to take on the responsibility of filling in and replacing those that leave? Is your team, regardless of size, positioned to support the organization toward growth and fulfillment of the vision? 

One great way of ensuring the team is ready for the future is to have succession planning in place. What is succession planning? It is a culture, supported by a formal process, to identify key leadership positions that are so critical in nature that a “back-up plan” is developed in case of an exit by the current team member. These positions are often those that run the organization or key components of the organization. Whether a full-time youth Pastor who has built a thriving group gives you a two-week notice or a key volunteer classroom teacher who says today is her last day, we should expect that vacancies in key roles will occur. Succession planning helps lay the foundation for handling these situations with a lot less confusion and stress.

How to develop a succession plan:

  1. Identify the organization’s most critical roles, each of these should have a named successor when possible. These named successors need to be developed and prepared for their next roles. Think of the daily responsibilities this team member will encounter in their new role and be sure to develop their skills and knowledge accordingly. As an example, let’s look at a Senior Pastor role. This role needs to understand how to work with the board of directors, bankers, church members, lawyers, city planners and architects all in addition to having the responsibility of ministering to the people. Be sure you give successors the learning opportunities to develop their abilities in these areas. It often takes years to develop real competency in these areas and successors can’t be expected to succeed if only given a few months. If a specific successor isn’t identified, it is important to begin looking for candidates that could be developed for these roles.
  2. After you have identified the most critical roles and named successors, the next step is to look at the rest of your team and develop a “pool” of potential candidates that can fill other critical roles. The difference between this group and the individuals above is this is your “bench” team. This is the team that can fill in as needs arise. It is also the team that can be tapped for roles and responsibilities that don’t yet exist. The most important thing to do with this group is to be sure that you give them specific development plans and annual personal objectives. Development plans are skills they need to develop ranging from conflict resolution, people management, and budget planning to public speaking. Personal objectives should be part of the annual review process and are specific things you want them to accomplish that year. These can be anything from growing a particular program’s attendance by 10% to launching a new member class. The best annual objectives grow a person’s individual skills while having them contribute to the overall organizational goals.
  3. Next, drive this culture of succession planning all the way through the organization. Many churches have key volunteers leading core activities like small groups, classrooms, student ministries, etc. If that is the case then volunteers should be brought into this process. If a volunteer holds a critical role in your organization, have a succession plan that identifies other volunteers that can step up when needed. Have them cross-trained under the key volunteer leader to prepare them to fill in during times of absence like vacation or sickness. If they have real life experience while the key leader is in place, they will then be ready if the position is vacated.
  4. Recognize that you must buy into this concept as a leader. If you are not developing your own replacement, the culture of the organization will never buy-in to succession planning. The culture will follow your lead and will only work if you, as the leader, are 100% committed to the process. Talented team members won’t stay around if they don’t see opportunities for advancement.

Is your church one of the 100,000 mentioned earlier in this article? If so, don’t wait to begin setting things up for the next generation of leaders, start today. All of us want to succeed at what we are called to do. I know how hard you have worked. A process like succession planning is a great way to ensure that all you’ve set out to develop is accomplished. Continue to dream and follow God’s direction and develop those around you to do the same.