Developing Successors

ROUND TABLE MEETLeadership is the trickiest question of them all! It’s common to see founder-driven NGOs being closely managed by one or two stalwarts resulting in an impediment in the growth of leadership within the organisation. Moreover, candidates with potential to lead, sooner or later, tend to move to organisations with greater opportunities for self-development. Consequently, when the founder is ready to step away from direct management of the NGO, the organisation struggles with succession. In the U.S., 2 out of 3 organisations surveyed continued to “operate without formal succession plans”, while only 14% of those without, said they would create one in the future[1].

Members of the ten non-profits who attended our Round Table Meet uniformly stated that leadership and transition were areas of importance. Session moderator Suresh Raina (Senior Partner, Hunt Partners) pointed out that founder-led organisations or those with ‘superstar CEOs’ often face a stumbling block in development of good second-tier leaders. The presence of an individual who dominates all decision-making leads to stagnation at mid and lower management levels. Concerns about maintaining enduring relationships with external stakeholders can lead to the entire organisation being dependent on one individual’s relationship management skills.

What should leaders do to counter this issue? A few points emerged from our discussion:

  • chess figurinesDelegate: Participants at the session were in agreement that the organisation should outlast the leader. Delegation and building teams play a big part in achieving this result. There is a noticeable tendency among non-profit leaders to be deeply involved in every aspect of the operation. The leader should identify a few less critical tasks and disengage from them even if he believes the subordinate would not be able to perform at the same level.
  • Leaders. Let go!: Every leader has a distinctive style of execution and may find it difficult to allow another to achieve results with a different approach. However, it is important to take a step back and manage rather than execute tasks
  • Operations can be ‘addictive’: Suresh pointed out that the high intensity of running operations provides instant gratification, an addictive process. However, execution should be the responsibility of others in the team. A leader must judge his effectiveness by his/her ability to train people to perform these tasks in his/her absence.
  • Make a succession plan: It’s unsurprising that most non-profit organisations lack succession plans, given the pressing demands of the field. To maintain organisation longevity, it is imperative that the leader develops a succession plan, even if it is on a back burner.
  • Groom more than one successor: Attrition is one of the largest challenges faced by corporate organisations as well. A plan which has identified only one successor-in-waiting can be ineffective if that person chooses to leave the organisation. Ensure that you have a larger pool of candidates to choose from by grooming multiple candidates across departments.
  • Professionalise the organisation: Ensure that organisational practices are streamlined. Increasingly, the NGO sector is being professionalised, so that organisations can plan their outcomes in advance.


[1] Staffing Challenges, 2014 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey,, accessed on 27th June 2014

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