Leadership: A successful succession

Some charities find it hard to plan for replacing their leaders, but succession planning can help the switch run smoothly. Damian Arnold passes on some tips and describes what happened when an adoption charity lost its leader.

Thinking about who will replace you as chief executive of a charity may not come easily, especially if you love your job. But identifying a potential replacement and showing the responsibility and generosity to groom them for your job is crucial to a good succession plan.

Putting an effective plan in place is a major challenge, yet many long-standing charity leaders are still not facing up to them, according to Amanda Tincknell, chief executive of the Cranfield Trust, a charity that offers consultancy to charities working in poverty, disability and social exclusion.

"My guess is that a lot of the smaller organisations don't have succession plans in place," she says. "It can be very difficult to put them in place with strong founder-led organisations. This can be disastrous when a strong founder suddenly leaves."

A good succession plan can avert such disasters by ensuring that potential leaders from within the organisation are groomed. Jo Oliver of Oliver Scott Consulting, which specialises in succession planning and management training, says: "There should always be one or two people you are looking to groom, but many chief executives are not generous with their support and don't like to think that others could do their jobs. Within the third sector there are limited resources - so, if anything, charities have got to be even more determined to invest in training and develop their people.

"And it's important to look not just at people's ability but also their aspirations. Are they really hungry for advancement? Are they emotionally engaged with the charity?"

Nevertheless, both Oliver and Tincknell warn against creating a royal succession. "You have to be very careful - if you start treating people like princes and princesses in waiting you can demotivate other staff," says Oliver.

And the problems may not stop there. Sometimes a quality internal candidate can't be found; in other cases, the post has to be advertised anyway.

"You are very fortunate if you are able to recruit from within," says Tincknell. "But often you can't, so you need to keep eye on people from outside the organisation who are doing similar jobs."

In these situations, it's best not to rush things. Appointing a new chief executive is a great opportunity to have a complete strategic review of the direction the charity is going in. Such a review will give you a clearer idea of the kind of leader you want to take the charity forward.

As Oliver puts it: "Succession is a huge opportunity for an organisation to think about its overall structure and objectives and to identify the skills it's going to need in the future.

"The world changes all the time. This is a chance to keep an eye on the road ahead and to think about what kind of person can lead you in this direction."

There is evidence that even smaller charities are embracing this approach. Take Bedfordshire and Luton Mind, for example. Part of its succession plan has been to develop an executive team in waiting that can run the charity effectively for between six months and a year. It is a move that will give the charity breathing space before it has to make a new appointment, according to chief executive Alison Fisher.

If other charities follow suit, they too could have a much smoother ride when it's time for their own chief executives to move to pastures new.


After Adoption recently advertised externally for a new chief executive, but after an exhaustive process it was the charity's operations manager Lynn Charlton who was offered the role.

The appointment to head the charity, which helps people who are affected by adoption, brings with it the management of more than 100 staff and an annual turnover of £2.9m. But the charity did not have a formal written succession plan and decided to hire a recruitment consultant to identify the best candidate possible from the open market.

That Charlton came out on top was thanks in part to the encouragement and support the charity gave her to become a credible candidate.

"We didn't have a clear policy in relation to succession planning," says Charlton, who joined the charity full time in 2000. "But it's fair to say the previous chief executive thought about it a lot and gave lots of opportunities to me and other people in the senior management team. They were definitely looking to see if there was leader potential among us."

Charlton was given the chance to take courses in leadership development at chief executives body Acevo and was encouraged to gain experience outside the organisation by being a trustee at the touring theatre charity Northern Stage. She also deputised for the previous chief executive at governance and stakeholder meetings.

Now ensconced as chief executive, Charlton says she is very keen to develop a formal written succession plan as part of the charity's drive to gain Investors in People status.

"I'm keen for the organisation to have a succession policy because I think it's an excellent way to deal with the inherent recruitment problems in this sector," she says. "However, it's likely that we would still want to advertise externally, because we would have to look at all the options that were available."

To ease the recent succession, Charlton is drawing on the experience of the previous chief executive, who is continuing in an ambassadorial role. She also has an external mentor from the private sector.

"I think it's important to have someone outside the organisation to talk to," she concludes.

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