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Be Ready for an Emergency

leadership transition May 04, 2021

- By Jane Halford

2020 taught all of us important lessons. For your organization, one of those is to better prepare for unexpected absences or departures of your leaders. We all have known people who were quarantined during the pandemic and others who, unfortunately, were ill or passed away during that time.

"As board members, we always know we should plan for an emergency with our CEO."

But are you really ready? Most organizations are not.

In summer 2020, I received a call from a small non-profit. Their CEO was healthy and had no plans to leave the organization. The board thought it would be a good time to work with him to plan what they should do if he became unable to work, or if he decided to take a different job. The end result is that the board now has a document outlining each necessary step to continue the organization’s operations during an unexpected leadership change. Their plan is to pass this document forward to future board chairs who will always keep it current. Here are highlights taken from this experience for your board to consider in preparing and documenting its emergency plan:

Immediate actions – List the key people who may be notified in the event of an unplanned absence or departure of your leader. Include the names and contact information for each member of your board and key staff. Review the list annually to ensure it is complete. If you want to be proactive, include draft scripts for the board chair to use in an emergency. In developing these scripts, consider what you would find helpful if you had to face that reality.

Mission control – The board’s role when changing the CEO is to be the transition’s mission control. That means planning the change and overseeing that it stays on track. In an emergency, not all board members will have the time or experience to actively serve in this role. Name a small group of board members to lead through the change. It could be a specific board committee (e.g., Executive, Human Resources), or an ad hoc group. In your emergency plan, list the group’s general responsibilities to support the appointment of an acting or interim leader, search for a permanent replacement, and/or support the transition.

Critical functions – With your current leader, document the critical functions performed by the CEO. Then, identify other staff members who could perform those responsibilities in an emergency. With this clarified, the board and staff should understand what is necessary if that situation ever occurs. If no staff member can fill the role, the document can identify if the board plans to take on the function themselves or hire an external resource.

Who can help? – Prepare a list now of the names, contact information, and descriptions of key contacts the board and staff may need who can help in an emergency. Be sure to include the organization’s lawyer, banker, investment advisor, external accountant, IT service provider, and organizations that could assist with the emergency, such as crisis counselling and an executive search firm. During the emergency, the board may choose other advisors, but having a list of suggestions will save time and stress.

Leader description – Many organizations only review the CEO’s job description when there is a retirement or resignation. It is recommended that the emergency plan include a copy of the current job description. The board should update the document annually to note any specific skills or experience an interim or new CEO should have if the change were to happen in the year ahead. This list does not affect the expectations for your current leader. Rather, it allows the board to move faster in an emergency to find a temporary or permanent replacement.

No internal emergency leader? – A small organization may not have a staff member who could step in as interim leader. If this is true for your organization, ensure the emergency plan states how the board will approach that situation. Will a board member be appointed the acting leader? One other option is to keep a list of potential individuals who could be contacted to take on this role if necessary. This may include a retired CEO from another organization, individuals known to take on short-term leadership contacts, or companies who provide such services.

Interim leaders are unique – If you appoint a temporary CEO, the board and interim leader have a unique relationship. This situation is truly a partnership. Absolute clarity of the interim leader’s authorities, priorities, and reporting relationship to the board is essential. The board chair should stay in contact with the interim leader at least weekly throughout the emergency situation.

No Time? – After all of this, you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for all of this extra work!” Being focused and efficient with the time you have available is all you can do. Even investing fifteen minutes a week in developing an emergency plan for your CEO will benefit the organization. If you’re interested in developing this further, you can find Halford Consulting’s Board’s Role in Leadership Transition online course. There are short videos and worksheets made for busy board members. Start on the first video for your fifteen-minute focus this week!

If you have other questions about leadership transitions, please email me at [email protected].

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