While Attila the Hun gets a bad press in many ways, a failure to plan for his own succession is not one of the foremost criticisms levelled at this scourge of the declining Roman Empire. Yet, having died on one of his wedding nights, Attila’s miserable legacy saw the Hunnic Empire collapse within a year, as his overambitious sons fell out and his vassals revolted.
This may seem like an extreme case of succession plan failure but there is no shortage of similar horror stories in the world of business. Third sector leaders need to take succession planning seriously and they need to invest in developing the next generation of leaders.
What follows are a few of the themes and recommendations which came out of the discussions.*
1. Take a strategic approach
Short termism is a barrier to strategic planning and staff development: "charities aren’t good at future proofing or strategising for the longer term" in the view of Juliet (who’s worked in private and third sectors in Cambridgeshire). There is a sense that this stems from short-term funding, as Katerina, who works for a national charity, underlined, "you just look at the lifetime of the project and plan for those two or three years." Succession planning, meanwhile is "only ever thought about when a manager is going to move on", according to Alan, a social enterprise founder with experience in the wider sector. You need to give people more responsibility now, find out how they perform, and let them learn by doing.
2. Make the most of what you’ve got – loyalty is a big part of the sector
More positively, a couple of students highlighted how they or others had progressed from being a volunteer to now occupying senior management roles. Felicity, from a London branch of a national charity, observed that her chief executive had started as a volunteer some 15 years earlier. Even where there was a lack of opportunity to progress inside an organisation, those who moved on tend to stay in the third sector. According to Anna, a senior manager in a national charity, this is because the sense of mission can be "portable, rather than remaining fixed on one particular social need."
3. Fight for funds to make it happen, build it into budgets
Pressure on finance means organisations won’t invest in developing their staff, according to Joe, chief executive of a smaller charity in Norfolk: "We are always scrabbling around for training funds - there are never any available." This can lead to staff leaving, as pointed out by Ellie who works in a domestic abuse charity in the East Midlands: "Lack of investment in staff is an issue across the board, there just isn’t the spare money, and the danger is people leave and you lose a great deal of experience and commitment." There will always be times when an outside vision is needed but don’t undervalue what you have in the building already.
4. Back your staff when they want to learn
Several students also mentioned that any "add-on" like leadership development can be seen as a distraction from delivering on the core purpose. Yet they felt passionately that the chance to learn, reflect and apply new knowledge to their organisations was of infinite value. Some are supported in their learning with time and subsidy from their organisations, while others have to take holiday and bear the course costs themselves. If these people move on, who can blame them?
In some organisations, things appear to have changed little since the Mary Marsh report into social sector skills in 2013. Its authors made the point that "the quality of leadership is at the heart of success in the social sector…not just at the level of directors and chief executives but for aspiring and emerging leaders across all positions and for trustees and volunteers too." As we try to keep ahead of the day to day buffeting from GDPR, front page scandals on safeguarding or fundraising, and attacks on high pay or administrative costs, perhaps we’ve lost sight of this message.
Every charity or social enterprise in the UK needs to treasure their top performers and develop them for the future, inside, but perhaps one day beyond their organisation’s boundaries.
A final message to senior leaders, directors and trustees of third sector organisations – don’t forget what happened to Attila! Invest in developing your organisation’s – and the sector’s – future stars, and plan for your succession now, not when it’s too late.
Over 120 next generation charity and social enterprise leaders have graduated from Anglia Ruskin’s two year part-time distance learning course, if you’d like to find out more please visit www.anglia.ac.uk/csem or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*names are changed
Andy Brady is Anglia Ruskin’s Charity and Social Enterprise Management course tutor