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Follow best practices in succession planning

February 17, 2015
by Joanne Sammer
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Few decisions are more important for a behavioral healthcare organization than the choice of who will lead it today and for the future. When senior executives leave an organization through retirement, choice or more controversial reasons, how well that organization manages the transition will reverberate for years to come.

“An organization that affects people’s day-to-day life has a responsibility to protect the organization from anything that would put that mission at risk or compromise its ability to fulfill that mission, including untimely turnover,” says Greg Miller, CEO of Penn-Mar Human Services. “If the organization is caught off guard, it could be a serious issue.”

For example, Molly O’Neill, now president and CEO of First Call Alcohol/Drug Prevention and Recovery in Kansas City, saw firsthand what can happen to an organization that does not manage succession effectively. Early in her career, O’Neill told one of her former organization’s board of directors of her intention to leave. But what followed was a case study in how not to handle succession planning. Rather than taking immediate action to find a successor, the board sat on the news of O’Neill’s upcoming departure for several weeks, wasting valuable time, she says.

When the board began to look for a replacement, it did so by advertising in a publication commonly read by staff and stakeholders and by writing the ad in such a way that the organization and the position were easily recognizable. At that time, the board still had not informed anyone of O’Neill’s upcoming departure, causing widespread confusion and gossip among staff about the future of the organization and their own jobs, while also undermining the organization in the eyes of its fund raisers, referral sources and other key external stakeholders.

Transparency about the ongoing succession process is critical. O’Neill says that a communication plan can help guide staff about the ongoing situation.

“Organizations should be prepared to notify internal leadership, volunteer leadership, staff, and other key stakeholders on what is going on how tasks will be delineated going forward,” she says.

Being proactive rather than reactive is crucial to preparing for the inevitable change in leadership at any organization.

Leadership gap

Preparation could also include early identification of several potential successors and updates of the list every year or as needed. With top leadership succession, organizations will have the opportunity to focus more on maintaining the mission and day-to-day business when a replacement has already been identified.

“More often than not, organizations have nobody who is prepared to step in as leader,” says Stacy Feiner, executive coach with consulting firm SS&G in Cleveland. “In small organizations, there is often a big gap between the leader of the organization and the next set of leaders.”

Not every company can promote from within. The choice between internal and external leadership candidates will depend on the organization’s goals. If the organization chooses an internal candidate, that individual might be a good fit for the culture but might need some time to learn and grow into the position. By contrast, an external candidate might be ready for the responsibilities of leadership but may need some time to acclimate to, or even change, the culture.

“Sometimes executive succession is necessary because there needs to be a culture change in an organization,” says Miller.

Feiner urges behavioral healthcare organizations to focus the talent acquisition process on finding the right person with the right leadership style and philosophy.

“You need to hire someone based on what the organization will need 15 years out, not today,” she says.

Therefore, the selection, interviewing, and qualifying the pool of talent should be done with a list of future needs readily available. However, some candidates might bring experience that will lend itself to opportunities that had not been previously considered.

For example, a leader of a treatment center with experience in special populations might bring that expertise and create a path of growth for the center’s future.

Looking ahead

Clearly, succession issues have become more critical given the recent merger and acquisition activity in the market. Changes in organizational structure that result often lead to changes in personnel.

O’Neill says it’s also become more challenging for behavioral healthcare organizations to find the right people.

“There is a shortage of good quality providers coming into the field,” she says. “There are likely to be challenges on both ends of spectrum when it comes to replacing both leadership and staff members.”

Succession processes can begin with a framework for the actions necessary when an executive departs, while also examining the various contingency plans, starting at the highest levels of the organization and working all the way down. Once completed, this framework can provide an action plan for how the organization will respond to any departure.

Without such a framework, the organization could lose an employee only to find that no one has a clear idea of everything that person did. As an organizational tool, it has another benefit of letting people see what responsibilities others have, as well as what potential opportunities could be available in the future.

Joanne Sammer is a freelance writer based in Brielle, N.J.