|He looked at me and said: “No, while those objectives|
are all admirable – your one most important objective
is to – find your replacement.”
I have served as senior decision maker (president) for two “Not for Profit” organizations for a total of more than 10 years. For me, it was a way of giving back and contributing in my community. While the rewards of contributing, working with like-minded altruistic professionals and helping change people lives was great – I learned a very important lesson that I would like to pass along should you be considering participating in a not for profit organization in any decision making capacity.
The situation unfolded some 8 years ago when I chose to take on the position of president for a not for profit organization. I really had no experience but I wanted to find out more about what I was capable of and what I might be able to contribute. After being elected to the position one of Board of Directors approached me privately and asked “What do you think your primary objective should be?” After a bit of thought I regurgitated the usual objectives, including some “boiler plate” mission statement objectives that the organization was committed to.
My initial thoughts on the question, suggested that perhaps this senior Board Member, who had a great deal of experience on many prestigious Boards of Directors was not confident in my abilities and was perhaps testing me in some way. After my response (and I am paraphrasing here) he said quietly “No, while those objectives are all admirable – your one most important objective is to – find your replacement.” Now I was certain ….this person did not have a lot of confidence in my leadership abilities. At that point he turned and walked away and he did not say another word…nor did I have any chance to ask about what the comment meant. I felt terrible…my first day as president of this Not For Profit…and I was being asked to seek my replacement as quickly as possible.
At this point I decided to make the best of it and keep a stiff upper lip and continue. Months passed and I attended a number of in-person and teleconference meetings in my new position and did not have any occasion to find out more about the comment. A year passed and I was asked to take on a second Not for Profit senior decision making position – and in spite of my misgivings I accepted this position; and now I was President of two organizations.
In the handling my responsibilities of this second more demanding positon I gradually began to understand what the comment had meant. As I continued in my responsibilities I oversaw many changes to both organizations and years passed I began thinking about how I could relieve myself of at least one if not both of these demanding positions. I was working full time as an entrepreneur, our family was growing and changing, responsibilities for each organization was becoming more intense and I needed an exit strategy.
Now that comment began to make sense - and I decided to put the question directly to the person who had originally posed it to me, “What did you mean when you told me I had to focus on planning for my replacement?” He smiled and he started by fist telling me what a great job I was doing and then went on to tell me, on the many boards he had served on he had learned one thing, that senior board positions are difficult to fill and if I wanted someone to carry on with the strategic process I had started I needed to find and put in place several people who I felt might one day be able to step into my shoes.
Suddenly it all made sense, for several years I had been second guessing myself and I finally realized that this has just been a piece of advice from someone who understand the burden of leadership and what it takes to carry on the important work of not for profits. I understood in that moment it takes time and effort to create a succession plan that would allow for seamless transition in leadership.
I have since left both organizations and passed on the mantle of leadership to capable leaders who have worked to improve the reality for each of these organizations. I have not forgotten this important lesson and I often see it play out in those I connect with in my everyday business experience – leaders doing great work who have not thought ahead to the day when they want to reduce their role and have a capable replacement to carry on the important work of their organization.