Planning for Leadership Transition

By Elizabeth Varner*

*Please note that I am not your attorney, I am not giving legal advice and there is no attorney-client relationship. All legal questions should be directed to your legal counsel. 

This article seeks to raise awareness of the issues in leadership or executive transitions that can impact cultural entities, but is by no means a comprehensive guide.

Leadership or executive transition occurs when a key leader, such as an executive director, departs. This transition is inevitable. Leaders move on, retire, and, unfortunately, pass away. This transition period can be a time of risk or of opportunity for the entity. A succession policy and succession, or transition, plan can prepare and guide the entity through this period.

A succession policy should be created with buy-in from the entity’s key leaders such as executive staff and board. A policy should designate who or what committee or board is responsible for recruiting and hiring the next leader; require creation and maintenance of a transition, or succession, plan; define the role of the outgoing leader; list a timeline for implementing the transition plan; commit to staff leadership development and comply with employment, discrimination and all applicable laws.    

A transition, or succession, plan guides the entity through the leadership transition. This plan should address: the outgoing leader’s responsibilities that must continue and who will perform them; implementation of the transition plan including roles and timeline; communications with the entity’s staff, supporters, partners and the public; saying goodbye to the departing leader and then welcoming and supporting the new leader when s/he joins the entity. Another piece of the plan is to determine if a consultant is needed to: assist with a self-assessment of the entity in order to determine what skills the next leader needs; support the recruitment process and help obtain an interim leader that has the capability to guide the entity during this transition. A consultant can be especially important if the organization or the board does not have the capacity to take on these added responsibilities or if there was an unplanned departure of leadership and the entity had not prepared for a transition.  Finally, a key, oft overlooked point is that the policy and plan must actually be followed to ensure a successful transition.

While discussing succession planning can be awkward, it is critical to do so. Succession planning takes time as does preparing the entity to withstand the transition. 

The following sources provide additional information on leadership transitions and were used in crafting this article:

Ms. Varner has written multiple publications and lectured on legal, ethical, and administrative issues impacting museums, cultural heritage, and arbitration. She is a Staff Curator with the U.S. Department of the Interior and also serves as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and a Board Member of the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation. The views expressed here are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior, IU School of Law, or LCCHP.