Creative LeadershipStrategy & Marketing

Why Succession Plans Fail

Ever wonder why so many leadership transitions from father to son or daughter, or leader to next generation leader fail? Especially in churches and ministries – and I’ve been involved in quite a few – they tend to fail at significantly high rates. I had my own ideas of course, and then I read this quote from James Lukaszewski, founder of The Lukaszewski Group. He consults businesses – especially during difficult times and is considered to be one of the top crisis management firms in the business. Here’s what he said about succession:

“…the longer the chairman stays in office, contemplating succession, the less likely it is that his first choice will survive the gauntlet the chairman would no doubt set up during the next twenty four months. Once CEO’s go into succession mode, they undergo a definite behavior shift: they begin to torpedo their putative successors. In fact, anytime a retirement is announced more than ten or twelve months into the future, the likely successor at the time of the announcement becomes less and less likely to be the successor when retirement ultimately occurs. What gets executed is the successor’s career. Count on this as part of the pattern.”

That’s a wake up call to churches, ministries, and non-profits when it comes to succession. Don’t drag it out. Especially in the case of founders, they want to have a voice in the way the next generation leader runs the organization. But time and time again, that’s a death knell. Make the transition. Cut the cords. At the very least, put the retiring leader on the road to meet with donors or partners, visit different organization offices, or become a public cheerleader for the organization.

What I’ve found effective with our clients is to focus the outgoing leader on his legacy. Perhaps that’s a major biography, a coffee table book on the history of the organization, or a documentary film on his life and work. Whatever it takes to get him distracted from interfering in the organization is a good thing.

In the meantime, the incoming leader has the chance to establish his own team, put his leadership stamp on the organization, and set a new course independent of past thinking, influence, or interference.

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  1. Good points Phil.

    Naming a successor and trying to remain on the scene and in control creates an environment for conflict, confusionally and divided loyalties.

    There's a reason why monarchies in the past used the term, "The King is dead.  Long live the King!!"  If a new "King or Queen" is to succeed, the old one muxst be gone, if not literally than positionally.  Move on, physically, psychologically, positionally, organizationally, and personally.

  2. This entry is both interesting and timely for me and for our church. Our Senior Pastor, now age 60, recently announced that our Associate Pastor (Senior Pastor's Son-in-law), will take over as Senior Pastor effective 01.01.2009. I think the the transition will be made, but I do wonder how much real authority will be passed on at the time of the transition. The current Senior Pastor made it very clear that he would still be on staff as an advisor and wouldn't be "going away" any time soon. I think the family affiliation will probably make it harder to for the Associate to make a decision that is perhaps contrary to the Senior's advice.

    I suppose only time will tell. Anyone got any thoughts about this? 

  3. Bart, I'm gonna have to disagree with you on the division part.  I believe the transition disasters are due to a lack of a fathering heart in the elder leader, not to the fact that he stayed.  I think a transition with a TRUE father will be twice as likely to succeed as a transition without one.

    4 Years ago, the handwriting was on the wall that my brother (27 at the time) would be the next pastor of our growing church, so my current pastor (my dad) didn't wait around until he died to transition things, he stayed on staff and co-pastored the lead position with him.  2 years ago, he transitioned it over to him as the lead pastor and still stayed on staff as a Father presence.  What happened?  Things flew forward!

    Although there are a lot of attributes as to why things have been incredible, here are some main ones:

      – The old pastor was willing to let go of the control reins and let necessary things change.  (a leader willing to transition from 1st chair to 2nd chair..that's rare!)

      – There was a strong "older" leader presence to rally the existing people under the new leader

      – In times of difficulty, the house and the staff never lacked a "father's voice" 

  4. Thanks Will.

     I'm not saying it couldn't be done, but i would tend to think it would be the exception rather than the rule.  If there were healthy and well understood boundaries and especially if the founder/father were very deliberate and intentional about not allowing themselves to appear as anything but supportive of the change and the new leadership I could see it happening.

    General rules and observations though would tend to indicate that a clean break in most cases would have a better track record.

    I wonder if there are any good studies out there on the subject that have quantified this issue?

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