**Updated in 2023, this post features content from a 2017 ASAE article in collaboration with Staffing Advisors President Bob Corlett, Jackie Eder-Van Hook, and Mary Logan. Read the full ASAE post here.

After working hard for many years, CEOs certainly don’t want to leave their legacy up to chance. With some advance planning, associations can avoid common pitfalls in the CEO selection process, significantly improve the search committee’s understanding of what factors to consider, and dramatically reduce their risk of making a hiring mistake.

Every organization will experience an executive departure at some point. A leadership change always poses challenges, but how much disruption it causes depends largely on how well the transition period is anticipated and managed. The process will proceed much more smoothly if the association—in particular, the board of directors—has developed a strategy for executive change to help mitigate the downside risk of being caught unprepared.

Often, executive vacancies are planned, such as when a CEO takes a new job, goes on a sabbatical, or retires. In these instances, an executive typically will remain in the position for a time to help the board of directors navigate the transition process. When executive vacancies are unplanned, such as terminations or death, the board of directors is left to figure it out on their own.

Planning for succession helps key stakeholders, including the board, search committee, and association staff, to understand roles and responsibilities in the transition. Here are a few tips for navigating an executive succession and preparing for the executive selection process:

Plan for the Unexpected (and the Expected)

Planning for an unexpected departure can also serve as a foundation for a planned leadership exit. Board members should take into consideration strategies for different lengths of vacancy, legal questions, and possible internal interim leaders. The board should regularly review and update these plans to ensure they remain relevant and effective and establish clear communication protocols for informing staff and stakeholders about the change in leadership.

From the ASAE article, “At a minimum, the succession plan should include key information, including a glossary of terms, position description, organizational charts and rosters, professional advisor list, key documents list, board resolution to change authorized signatories, executive search services RFP and evaluation tools, and search committee charter.”

Partner With the Outgoing Leader

When the exit is planned, it’s essential to engage the outgoing leader even if you are looking for a new type of leadership. Few search committee members will be familiar with the actual day-to-day work of the top executive. Their input on what the organization needs in a future leader may not be specific enough for an outside executive search firm to create a compelling job description and competency-based evaluation criteria. However, the outgoing CEO or executive director can provide a wealth of information about the requirements and challenges of the role, staff skills and capacities, and more.

It’s important to consider both the current needs of the organization and how these might evolve in the future. A few suggestions from the ASAE article,

  • “Review the strategic plan with the search committee and rank the most difficult and strategically important items that the incoming leader must be ready to address. List business scenarios that keep the outgoing CEO awake at night. Rank them according to the amount of risk they pose to the association and discuss what kind of career experiences might prepare someone to understand and address them.”
  • “Review the skills gap between the current team’s capabilities and the competencies that will be needed to address the strategic plan and nightmare scenarios.”

Safeguard the Legacy of Your Organization

Effective succession planning isn’t just a necessity; it can be a strategic advantage. By anticipating and preparing for both expected and unexpected leadership changes, an association can ensure a smooth transition, safeguard its legacy, and maintain a commitment to its mission throughout. When it comes to working with an executive search firm, the more the board understands the day-to-day work of the organization’s top leader, the better prepared they will be to attract and hire a candidate who can usher in the next era of growth.