How can you approach succession planning?
Talking about the uncomfortable moment of what happens when a CEO or Executive Director moves on is never an easy one. Farra Trompeter, co-director at Big Duck, and Amy Sample Ward, CEO at NTEN, share ideas and resources for what people can do to get started on a succession plan and reflect on NTEN’s process, which included creating continuity plans for the entire team.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Today, I’m excited to be joined by my friend and colleague and longtime compatriot on many things, Amy Sample Ward. We are going to talk about how to approach succession planning. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, one I’ve had a chance to work on personally with Amy as well as one I talk to many nonprofits about. This can be a very scary topic. It’s the thing that many people want to avoid, but without doing it, you might find yourself in real challenges and gaps when there is an unexpected or expected change in leadership.
Farra Trompeter: So we’re going to dive into this topic, but before we do that, I want to tell you a little bit about Amy. Amy, who uses they and she pronouns, is CEO of NTEN, an organization that envisions a world where nonprofits fulfill their missions through the skillful and racially equitable use of technology. Amy has had the privilege to present at conferences around the world and has been a guest on many podcasts, including the Smart Communications Podcast. In fact, you can tune into episode 77 where Amy talks with Sarah about how your values can help during challenging times. Amy also has contributed to many articles and books, has written several books herself including Social Change Anytime Everywhere, which was a Terry McAdam Book Award finalist. Amy co-wrote that book with Allyson Kapin and has a new book that has just come out that they co-wrote with Afua Bruce called The Tech That Comes Next: How Changemakers, Philanthropists, and Technologists Create An Equitable World. Offline, Amy can often be found hiking, biking, exploring the world with their most supportive partner, most adventurous child, and very Muppet-like dog, who again, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all three, and is often found frolicking along Oregon’s coast or enjoying its wine country. Amy is also known for giving excellent hugs, and I can personally attest to that to be true. And I’m very sad I’ve not had a chance to receive one in person, thanks to COVID, in over two years, but we will rectify that soon I hope. Amy, welcome to the show.
Amy Sample Ward: Thanks for having me on. I, too, am sad that we have not got to have a hug in far too long, but I’m holding out hope that sometime in ‘22 we can have a hug.
Farra Trompeter: Yes, please, and here’s a virtual hug moment.
Amy Sample Ward: Yay.
Farra Trompeter: Amy, we have worked together in lots of different ways. We, I think, first connected as being members of the NTEN community and speakers together on workshops at the NTC, the Nonprofit Technology Conference. We then helped co-organize the local meetup of the New York City chapter connected to NTEN, 501 Tech NYC. You have spoken in my classes when I’ve taught at NYU and the New School, I’ve had a chance to speak on webinars hosted by NTEN, but most recently we had the chance to work together through NTEN’s board where I was a member and also had the pleasure of working very closely with you as chair of the board from 2016 to 2019. Now I know you are currently and have been the CEO of NTEN for many years, but you’ve also been the board member of several boards and have been a board chair yourself. And I just wanted to start off before we even talk about succession planning, let’s just talk briefly about boards and what you think about the relationship of the board chair or co-chairs and the executive director or co-directors because, again, that leadership of an organization can be really important and pivotal to how well an organization functions. And I’m curious, what do you think about that, and what does it look like to you when the directors or CEOs and the board chairs or co-chairs work well together?
Amy Sample Ward: I have many feelings about this topic, and I want to also start by rooting our conversation in the acknowledgement that our entire sector is set up in a patriarchal way that doesn’t make any sense where random volunteers, often from the corporate sector, are somehow deemed more worthy of directing the organization’s work than the actual communities that should be at the center of that table. So, I just want to acknowledge that first because a lot of my feelings about that relationship between board chairs and CEOs or EDs as well as just boards and organizations in general is really rooted in that reality and that I really don’t think you should have board members that are not your community members. You know, the idea that anyone would be more important to be on your board than folks who’ve come through your programs or benefited from your services or directly experienced what it means for your mission to come to life, I just won’t buy the argument that there’s somebody else better to be in that leadership role.
Farra Trompeter: I just want to pause and not only agree with you but also shout you out and maybe pat us both on the back because I think work we did together was really transforming NTEN’s board to be that. That, you know, I feel like when I joined the board, it was half community, maybe half people who were connected to NTEN, but maybe a little bit less connected and close to the programs and maybe had more of a professional affiliation. And I know that we were really mindful in evolving that board to be much more representative of the community, and you’ve done work to even further that since I came off the board in 2020. So I just want to amen, celebrate all of that, what you just said.
Amy Sample Ward: Thank you. Yes. But I think it also is related to your question about the relationship. I have experienced boards where I’ve come on as a board member even and seen that the board chair has not had a long history with the organization or hasn’t benefited or participated from one angle or another in the mission or the programs. And so much of the executive director or the CEO’s job becomes the burden of validating and justifying the work of the organization to the board versus leaning on them as partners and champions and people that are resources. And so I think who’s on the board and then within that, who becomes the chair really determines what the ED is even able to use the board for. And the things that have been most valuable to me in my tenure as CEO have been able to go to the board and say like, “This thing happened, and I am super excited or I’m super bummed or whatever,” and I don’t have the emotional capacity to explain the context of why I am excited or why I am bummed, but having folks who are from the community, they already feel that way with me, right? And so we can move directly into processing those emotions and then making a solution or a plan instead of, “Okay, do I even bring this to the board because are they even going to understand it? Is it even worth trying to explain this to the board,” right? “Are they going to judge what I bring forward to them? Are they going to question that my take is the right take,” right? And that’s not to say that everyone on the board should just, like, automatically believe anything. That’s certainly not the case with the NTEN board, you know, but it is to not have to spend all of your energy and time educating your board on what you are even doing so that you can get to the place where you need help. I think that’s really key.
Amy Sample Ward: And part of, I think, the relationship that’s been helpful with when you were chair and really with Jason, Bridget, all these folks, incredible community members who have done their service in being the board chair, has been this person I can say, “Here’s, like, this really granular status on this grant or this community member said this thing and I know there’s 50,000 community members that said something nice, and this one person said something rough and I just need a landing place to share this.” Because for me, one thing that’s really unique and is kind of a gift if it’s done well, the chair becomes this place for me as the CEO to kind of put things that I don’t have to put on staff because how we are as leaders, of course, every single day in every communication is determining how staff feel about the whole mission, about the whole organization. And sometimes there’s some stuff you want to say and you don’t want staff to have to carry it, you know? And that’s a really valuable role for the board chair to play.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. No, I mean, I know we could go deeper into boards, and I will have you back for some ranting and some thinking about that.
Amy Sample Ward: I have a long list for the IRS.
Farra Trompeter: There’s a lot I’m proud about in that service and in that work we got to do together, and one of those was really setting up a succession plan for you. I have conversations with folks all the time where they talk about, “Oh, our founder or our executive director, like, they’re not in a good place or they’re getting older and they won’t let us bring up succession.” Or maybe they’re not.
Amy Sample Ward: I’m in my thirties, Farra. You’re telling me I’m already getting old.
Farra Trompeter: Not you, not you. But other folks where maybe it’s not about age, it’s just about they’re so close to the organization as many of us, when we work for these organizations, they do become our identity and to say, “Well, what happens when you’re not here,” feels like you’re forcing me to change an identity I’m not ready to let go of. It can be scary to bring up this idea or awkward for either staff or board members to go to the executive director or the founder and say, “Hey, I’d love us to be proactive. Let’s do some succession planning.” Before we get into that whole process of what goes into succession planning, I’d love to know if you have any reflections on, like, I feel like it was easy. It was easy for us to say, “Hey, we’re at this place. We’re in our lifecycle as an organization, NTEN is over 20 years old. As it is maturing, it’s time to really think about having a succession plan in place.” So, I’m curious if you have thoughts about either, why was it so easy for us or what do folks do, or if you’ve had experiences, when it’s been more difficult.
Amy Sample Ward: Yeah. You know, I want to, like, not just say, “Oh, it should be easy for everybody.” I totally get how it can feel both like there’s stigma around it and there’s a lot of anxiety. Like, “What does this mean? Is the board bringing this up because, like, they don’t want to tell me they’re going to fire me or something?” I totally get that. It is a weird, delicate balance that all goes back to the fact that you have these random volunteers apparently in charge of you. The whole system’s broken, we get it. True.
Amy Sample Ward: I think for me though, the reason that it didn’t feel too much of that is my background is in community organizing, and you are not doing smart organizing if it’s about you. If you are sick and you can’t show up that day and that means stuff doesn’t happen, you weren’t doing a good job. And so I think that background and that kind of practice, in a way, took some of the pressure off of like, “Oh my gosh, Farra wants to fire me,” or something because, as you’ll remember, I was also eager to have one because it was like, “What if I do get sick?” Not that I like, leave and burn the organization down. Like, what if I just need two weeks unexpectedly? I don’t want the pressure to become a burden that messes things up. I think that helped it be easier, and I think influenced how we did do it.
Farra Trompeter: Or what if you give birth a few weeks earlier than expected?
Amy Sample Ward: Two months earlier than expected. Right.
Farra Trompeter: Which was right after one of our check-ins as chair and CEO, I think, a few hours later I get a message, “Hey, just so you know, Amy’s in labor.” What?
Amy Sample Ward: Yes. In fact, a human came out of my body, and we had, just that week, approved my leave plan. Yeah. You really can’t control things in life. But I also think, like, not to be overly serious or bring things down, we have just gone through 20 plus months of a pandemic. We’re recording this in the winter. You know, I didn’t actually do the math on how many months, but if we don’t know by now that things can just happen and we didn’t know they were coming, there isn’t going to be a thing that convinces you if you’re not convinced. And so I think knowing that what you’re doing isn’t focused on who and how should they hire somebody to replace me, but it’s, “Hey, if I just need to step away, no questions asked, how can everything keep going smoothly?” It’s a very different context to bring to the project.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. Well, let’s get into the heart of it without getting into, like, this is how you do succession planning. I think there’s plenty of articles about that, we will find a great one and link to it in the show notes and the transcript here. But I’d love to talk a little bit about our process and, specifically, one of the things that I love is that you evolved it from being like, “Yeah, I get you, board, want a succession plan for me, the executive director,but it’s not just about me,” to your point earlier about being an organizer, “It’s also about the other members of my team.” So I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the process and especially how you then adapted it with the rest of your staff.
Amy Sample Ward: For my plan, part of the process that was really helpful is there are lots of templates and books and probably consultants you can pay lots of money to. But instead of just saying, “Okay, let’s download this template and write our answers,” we started, you and at that time, our Vice Chair, Jereme, and then with NTEN staff, separately, I also engaged them and said, “If I didn’t show up to work, what would you need to know? What can you not do without me? What are the parts of processes that I’m a signer off on? What are the things?” Because the stuff about like, “Oh, somebody emailed and we need to get this grant report,” yeah, we can figure that out. But it’s like, where are the places that you turn to me so that we can make sure whatever plan we have accounts for those roles and relationships? So, ultimately, after going through that, you, me and Jereme, and with staff, the plan we came up with was very scenario-based. I think there’s three different scenarios in there. And a lot of the quote unquote plan is actually just answering questions in advance so that we are not setting up whomever’s on the board, whomever’s on staff to make decisions out of a place of fear or panic or, like, emotionally worried about me. The decision was already made.
Amy Sample Ward: If I’m going to be out for less than a month, we know that I’m coming back. There’s just a thing happening. Here’s the plan. Here’s who is in charge. Here’s what it means. So it’s kind of like that, folks call them like decision trees or matrix, right? It’s like, you just activate plan one. Or if I’m going to be out and we don’t know when I’m coming back. Okay. At what point do we hire an interim versus have the board chair just kind of cover things? A lot of the time was spent on let’s make these decisions intentionally now so we don’t make them later. And I think that’s a very different piece than we saw in a lot of templates for succession plans.
Amy Sample Ward: And with staff, on the other hand, we don’t call them succession plans, for one, we call them continuity plans. Because just like there’s that stigma for executive directors, there’s that stigma for staff. Telling a staff person, “Hey, we want a succession plan.” It’s like, no, you’re not going anywhere. We don’t want you to go anywhere. Instead, this is a continuity plan. We’re living in a pandemic. We did this work before the pandemic, thankfully, but you know, still the same thing. We want, if something comes up in the night, you send a single text message in the morning and we’re good. We are good to cover you because, of course we could turn to our project management tool and see what tasks you have assigned or you know, that tactical stuff. But at least for an organization like NTEN where we have fewer than 20 staff, we don’t have anybody doing the same job as anybody else. So it’s really helpful for us that we have these continuity plans, which really have three, kind of, core sections.
Amy Sample Ward: One is a recap on what your job is that nobody else does. So the places where we maybe don’t know, “Oh, that happens every Friday. Oh, that thing needs to go out.” So there’s a nice recap there and like, where do you do it or what’s the resource, whatever. And then a section for key contacts. Again, at an organization like NTEN, we have a lot of external contacts that staff work with, but they’re all different. You know, Drew is talking to different people than Tristan‘s talking to. So having that there, like, “Why do you talk to them? Oh, that person’s a paid contractor versus this is someone who helps me,” you know, whatever. And then the final section is kind of like a cheat sheet or a quick resource list that links over; we use a private WordPress site as our internal intranet. Some people use a Wiki. Some people use Google Docs, whatever. We call it Pizza Blanket because when you’re stressed, you want to have a delicious pizza and wrap up in a blanket. So we call our internal resource…
Farra Trompeter: That’s just missing a blanket full of kittens, but you know, I’ll let you have your pizza blanket.
Amy Sample Ward: So we call our internal resource Pizza Blanket. So, it has a bunch of links that go to Pizza Blanket. So whatever’s related, Jude, for example, for membership has some pages where, “Oh, if you have to manually give somebody a membership, here’s how to go do that from the back end. If you’re trying to do some customer service and someone doesn’t know if they have a membership, here’s how to check their status.” So whatever those very tactical, kind of, things that are related, really, just to your job that other people might not know. The third part of the continuity plan links you to those so anybody could be like, “I’m going to cover customer service while Jude is out. I can see what his processes are. I can see the quick database tricks. I’m on it.” And we have had staff had to step out, kind of like no plan, oh my gosh, this just happened, and we’ve seen the value of this, being able to say, go. Like, you’ve got to go take care of this or be with your family or whatever, and it’s written down. We know what to do, and it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, this was also that, like, you never come back or we fire you and know what to do.” It’s like you just needed two days because somebody got sick. It really does contribute, I think, to a culture where we do care about you. We don’t want you to feel like an emergency is happening and you have to take your laptop to the airport to go to a funeral and, like, everything is horrible. No, go to the funeral. And so it really changes that our culture does center the staff person as a human versus what we care about as your work product.
Farra Trompeter: You are definitely very much a human-centered, people-centered kind of leader, and NTEN is definitely that kind of organization. And I think even thinking about it as continuity versus succession puts the emphasis more on, “What are we hoping to do at the end of the day? We need to keep delivering our mission, meet the community where they are, give them what they need. How do we make sure that keeps happening?” as opposed to “Who will become the next person who does my job,” which feels like it’s more about power. So I love that idea of thinking about it as continuity, and I think, to me, that’s a powerful, even, switch in the frame of it that, hopefully, is something that people may be able to start doing that makes that conversation feel a little less scary.
Amy Sample Ward: And I think when you think about key contacts and summary of your job that other folks don’t know, it’s also, it doesn’t matter what your title is. Every person, whether you’re a coordinator or a director or whatever, you have key contacts. Every single staff person’s template is the same because everybody’s work needs to be documented in the same way, you know. It’s not just quote unquote leadership staff, like, y’all are leadership staff. We need all of you. So, I think the way that you frame any of this planning determines the level of adoption you’re going to get and the way that people feel connected to actually doing that planning thoroughly with you or not.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s great. Well, you’ve given lots of really, I think, helpful things that people can think about and start doing. Are there any other thoughts you have, any tips, resources, ideas of what people can do to get started or to evolve their practice as it relates to continuity planning?
Amy Sample Ward: Sometimes it can feel daunting for folks to just get this template by themself and be like, “I have to go figure out what, apparently, is most important to my job and who my important key contacts are,” if that isn’t something that your organizations had, kind of, practice doing before. And so an entry point could be to create a continuity plan for your team or your department. What is the program team’s continuity plan? What do we know that other teams don’t know? And that way it gives people almost, like, a practice session that is still valuable, still helpful to have that for the team, but it kind of takes a little bit of the pressure off of, like, “Oh, this is only for me or this is only for staff who might get fired, right?” Like, no, this is just our own organization’s healthy documentation.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I like thinking about it organization-wide, not just centering it on the leader. So that’s great. Well, Amy, this was a delightful conversation as always. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your insights. If you are out there listening and you want to connect with Amy, you can find them on Twitter, @amyrsward. You can also find Amy on LinkedIn, on Instagram, on all the things. Of course, also through NTEN, which you can find online at www.NTEN.org. You can also read Amy’s books. You can find Amy’s books on Bookshop, in your local library, and all the places. Amy, thank you so much for coming and being on the show.
Amy Sample Ward: Thanks for having me on. If you’re trying to do this in your organization and you’re struggling, you can always reach out. I’m happy to share, provide helpful feedback, whatever I can do to support you because I think this is really important even if we want to talk about technology and everything else. Knowing that we can keep our mission going while we also care for each other as people is really important for all of us.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And thank you for that because I know you are a resource to so many people on so many things, including to me, so thank you.