I once worked for a company that had the company parking lot across a city park and an awkwardly curving and fast street. On more than one occasion I nearly stepped in front of the #15 bus in a dreary haze either to or from the office to my car. It was like this bus would magically appear out of nowhere and nearly run me down. It was about this time that I came up with the “Magic Bus” contingency for emergency succession planning. Over the years I revised it as I gained an executive viewpoint. Here are some thoughts on a still-evolving plan.
1. Nobody wants to talk about it – you are on your own
I’ve never found a Board or a senior staff seriously interested in discussion succession planning. There are always more pressing matters and some people either think you are a) gunning for them, or; b) morbid. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ask this of your senior staff or Board: Do you have life insurance? Do you want all your hard work to be for nothing? I had a CFO who just would not discuss this until I pointed out that without a “how to” binder from her, I could guarantee we’d decimate her ledgers and chart of accounts before she could get out of the hospital. Show me a CFO who doesn’t believe that!
So here’s the deal. Start at the top. Bosslady, clearly define who’s in charge if you get hit by the “magic bus”. Face it, if the bosslady gets hit by a bus, a general freak0ut it guaranteed. Better have figured out who’s got keys to the castle, so to speak.
For senior staff, I like to let them choose, with the boss getting a veto. I believe that the marketing director knows better who can pick up the ball and keep the PR game on better than anyone. Let him pick who does what if he gets whacked.
2. Go through job description and pick out the absolutely critical functions that need coverage in the first 24 hours, 3 days, a week, a month, or a business cycle. You may find (as I did) that in the first 24 hours, the critical functions are FAR different than they are on a longer time-frame, and that the middle of the timeline is actually the hardest to manage. To make you job easier, focus on no more than the first three days. This should give you breathing room to get the team in one room to regroup.
3. Focus on IT and communications. Does someone have all the passwords they need to get in your files? Can the staff get in and change your outgoing voice mail quickly? Does someone have the Board President’s vacation home and cell phone number? Is marketing prepared to release a statement to the press if needed? Do front-line sales people know who’s in charge if he bosslady takes a dive? Get this in line and review/revise your IT security and crisis press procedures at the same time!
4. Consider a crisis management team. There’s probably a reason the bosslady is boss and not Mr. What’s His Name, who is now pressed into service. Support your interim leader with a small team of senior staff and no more than three board members. Your interim needs support on areas of inexperience, and needs the backing of the Board for any unusual decisions to be made.
5. Backfill as you go up the ladder. If the bosslady goes down, consider it “all hands on deck” time. Remember if you are filling in for the higher ups, some things will get dropped to deal with it. You are best advised to pass along some duties downstream. This will lead to the next level of planning on down the organizational chart.
6. Awkward situations can be avoided if you work a policy in advance that if you must fill-in for a higher up, a pay adjustment kicks in after X number of days. There will be a tremendous amount of work to do. Nobody should be worried about whether or not they’ll be compensated. If no additional compensation is to be had, make that clear. People just need to know.
7. Don’t make things difficult. Start small. A little plan is better than none. I once had my senior staff start by simply writing a note to be read in case they were hit by a bus. I asked them, “Tell us what we need to know if you get hit by a bus.” For some people it was surprising to learn that it was less about files and to-do lists and more about relationships that needed to be maintained. This little exercise saved us a huge amount of time and helped us focus on what really needed to be addressed, rather than what we might have guessed based on a job description.
Like checklists? T here are some excellent check lists from the Centre for Nonprofit Advancement (www.nonprofitadvancement.org)