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Succession Challenges: No Easy Answers

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

The recently-concluded meeting of the Fonkoze USA Board of Directors in Haiti was reportedly productive, motivating and enlightening. It was also the first in-person meeting of that governing body since 2006 that I did not take part in. Indeed, I am winding down nine years of service on that Board this year, in part due to a compromise made years ago that stipulated a maximum of three three-year terms for (almost) any Director.  (I only know that the meeting went well based on the fact that its Chairman and my successor, Matt Balitsaris, was kind and conscientious enough to brief me by telephone as a courtesy days after the meeting ended.)  question-mark1

This got me thinking about the larger challenge of succession planning in social sector organizations like those in the Fonkoze Family (Fonkoze Financial Services, the Fonkoze Foundation, and Fonkoze USA).

Like many social sector organizations with commercial aspects that launched in the 1990s due to a mix of management and conceptual breakthroughs, a booming economy (and a related boom in philanthropic activity), and fewer totalitarian regimes in power around the developing world, Fonkoze is struggling with how to replace aging talent on its staff and governing bodies. A related challenge is how to progressively turn over roles traditionally held by foreigners to Haitians. As with so many things that seem logical if not obvious, the devil is  truly in the details.

There are few easy answers. The values, insights, reputations and relationships of founders and long-serving employees and volunteers represent substantial assets that no organization would want to give up unless it had to. But sometimes, along with those assets come liabilities. Two examples: rigid views about how the organization should function, and holding on to roles that ambitious young talent yearn for (and may leave if they do not see a pathway to securing).   Figuring ways to gradually ease one generation of leaders into roles that maximize the assets they represent, but minimize their liabilities, is much easier said than done.  Overall, Fonkoze has dealt with this well (such as the case of Anne Hastings’ transition last year from a CEO role to a volunteer/governance role), but major challenges lie ahead.

For my part, I have said many times that when I leave my (paid) post of President and CEO of Grameen Foundation someday, I will accept no formal role in the organization for a period of at least five years.  While that would limit my ability to help the organization during that period, it would have one big benefit — it would give my successor room to grow without me looking over his (or hopefully her) shoulder, or even being perceived to be doing so.  Above all, I would not accept a seat on the Board of Directors, which I believe is a lazy and often counter-productive way of thanking and attempting to involve well-liked departing CEOs. (Though I believe putting or keeping a departing CEO on the Board can be the best option in some cases, such as with Anne’s retiring as CEO of SFF last year and continuing to serve on its Board, which I supported.)

Last year, Grameen Foundation elected its fifth Chairman — a wonderful man named Bob Eichfeld.  Within a short time of accepting the role, he asked me to write up an “Emergency Succession Plan” — essentially, what I would advise him and the other remaining leaders to do if I were suddenly killed or incapacitated.  This sounds like an obvious and sound practice, but it took me five months of procrastination before I wrote it up. Confronting ones mortality, in any sense of the word, is not easy for most people — and certainly not for me.

Interestingly, 8 1/2 years into my role with Fonkoze, I do not know whether any of the CEOs or Board Chairs have ever written an Emergency Succession Plan.  I expect amidst all the frenetic activity, punctuated by major natural disasters every few years that disrupt everything and prove to be major distractions and hardships, there has been thought to composing such documents but perhaps none has ever been completed.