10/30/2023 by Mark Davis |

Hope Is Not a Strategy

blocks with a single letter on each, spelling out the word success, then a final block, one side says full and one says ion

A few years into what ultimately became a 20-year headship, two trustees on the Governance Committee suggested that I should have a succession plan…for me.

At first, my heart sank. Were they sending me a no-confidence message? Or presaging my imminent demise? As the two of them (a chair of a prominent executive search firm and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company) explained their reasoning, however, I saw that they were doing exactly what great trustees do: bringing their experience and wisdom to bear on securing the future of the school, coaching me to be a better leader, and strengthening the board in its strategic and fiduciary responsibilities.

They asked me to come back to them with a draft plan that considered three succession scenarios:

Scenario 1

My immediate departure.

Whatever the reason for it (I preferred the “won the lottery” scenario to being fired or “hit by a bus”), a prepared board should know who to turn to for immediate interim leadership. Ideally, not only is that person already in the school, but a plan also exists for someone else – or a team – to take on the interim’s existing responsibilities. The trustees made it clear that, in addition to being a core fiduciary priority of the board, such a plan, supported by a strong enough bench of talent, would underscore the strength of my leadership team and my ability to surround myself with exceptional people.

Scenario 2

My departure in the near term (up to six months) or any timing that could necessitate an interim leader of a year or more.

While definitions of “the near term” can vary, preparedness for a less-sudden-but-unexpected vacancy in the head’s office requires a plan. In addition to the details of scenario 1 (which might also serve scenario 2), my board wanted answers to two additional questions:

1) Who is our first phone call? e.g., the external person (perhaps a retired school head) or list of people who can step in for an extended (but not permanent) period to give the board the time it needs to conduct a thorough search for a successor?

2) Which consultants do we enlist to recruit an interim head of school if we can’t do it ourselves?

In addition to putting a fine point on the diligence and time required of a proper search, scenario 2 recognizes that, if extended beyond a few months, the plan for scenario 1 almost certainly would serve the school poorly, including exhausting those responsible for leading it.

Scenario 3

A planned departure of two to three years or more.

In this ideal scenario, the board recognized that, even if there were one or more compelling internal successor candidates, a robust and inclusive search process would almost certainly serve the school best while calling on the best governance practices of a high-performing board. Happily, for the board and for me, that is exactly what happened. Four years ahead of time, board leadership knew that I planned to retire after my 20th year as head of school. That timeline enabled several positive steps: 

  • A board chair succession plan that seated a trustee to chair the Search Committee and become the next head’s board chair.
  • The appointment of a Search Committee and the selection of a search firm more than two years before the new head took office.
  • A carefully sequenced communications plan, beginning with the announcement of my retirement with 20 months remaining in my tenure and the board in position to assure the school community of a thorough and professional search process.

While not everyone will have the good fortune of a scenario 3, it became clear to me that the wise trustees who asked me to create and annually update a succession plan had modeled superb governance and rendered farsighted service to the school and to me.

This short piece neither captures all aspects of succession planning nor accounts for the inevitable twists and turns of governance and leadership journeys. For every journey and every scenario, there will be idiosyncrasies and surprises, questions to ask, and issues of school history and culture to address. All the more reason, then, to plan as carefully as possible and not give hope a seat at the succession table.

Mark Davis is a Senior Consultant for leadership searches. He is also a Coach in our Coaching Practice.

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1 Comment

Jim Mooney 11/15/2023 at 1:13pm

This is an excellent piece – very useful.