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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