CEO to CEO: Stress and Succession Plans

Dealing with stress on the job and succession planning.

How do you deal with stressful situations on the job?

Stress is a component of nearly every CEO's day-to-day routine. A positive mindset and a physically healthy body can go a long way toward minimizing the effect on job performance. I try to get to work early to take care of the mundane tasks before the rest of my staff arrives. This helps me to put out the daily fires in a calmer manner. I constantly remind my staff that drama has its place in movies and on television but not in the workplace. A happy and positive staff can help alleviate stress and also puts them in the best mindset when dealing with problems they face from membership or vendors.

—Rob Wigton, chief executive officer, Nevada Association of Realtors, Reno, Nevada; Email: [email protected]

Stress on the job is like stress in any other aspect of life; it can happen any time, any day for a variety of reasons. My philosophy is to have a proactive process for dealing with stress in life, and for me that is getting regular exercise, adequate rest, and having a healthy diet. Then you're ready to cope with anything that comes up. In an extremely stressful situation, I find it helps to take a deep breath and focus on remaining calm, so I can think clearly. If time permits, a 15-minute walk outside the office helps me refocus.

—Kris Cook, CAE, executive director, National Affordable Housing Management Association, Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Vigorous exercise helps deal with stress, and there is ample scientific evidence that it helps relax the body. If I can't make it to the gym, I take a walk with no particular destination, let my mind wander, and take in the sights. Worrying about a plan to deal with the stress before relieving the stress just adds more stress.

—J. Michael Keeling, CAE, president, The ESOP Association, Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Stepping back, taking a day away from the office to do reflective planning, and discussing things with others not in the field gives me a different perspective and new ideas to tackle stressful situations.

—Debra Gilmour, executive director, Oregon Prevention Education and Recovery Association, Portland, Oregon. Email: [email protected]

It seems being reactionary is an acceptable practice these days, but I believe we need to dig a little deeper before flying off. Being rooted and having some patience to discover potential solutions works most times. To do that, I make sure to take care of myself by setting health goals and making sure I have family time. As a Native American, taking time for prayer and ceremony is also critical. Most times, stress becomes overwhelming because we are out of balance. Work on the balance, and your ability to handle situations improves greatly.

—Pam Silas, CEO, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email: [email protected]

How have you approached succession planning with your board or executive committee?

I'm retiring on December 31, 2012. I've known that for some time but just hadn't shared my plan with anyone. It was a casual conversation with the chair of the board more than a year ago about contract renewal that was the catalyst for me to go public. I decided to be forthright about my plans rather than dance about not having made any firm decisions about retirement. The benefit of my being upfront about the issue is the board has had time to plan for the selection process and seriously discuss what skills, traits, and attributes will be important for the future. Most of my colleagues are surprised about the long notice, but I've not yet experienced anything that's been troubling or problematic.

—J. Clarke Price, CAE, president & CEO, Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants, Dublin, Ohio. Email: [email protected]

Succession planning was a priority when I became CEO in 2009, because the board had just experienced a long-term CEO retirement. I retained an outside expert to develop a succession-planning policy for my own job and help my senior staff develop succession plans for their departments. We now have a strong succession-planning handbook that addresses every aspect of a CEO departure, planned or unplanned. The ingredients to success: Having the right consultant with experience in transition issues, being prepared as CEO for any type of transition, putting the organization's interests first, and leaving egos behind. Every association should go through this process.

—Mary K. Logan, CAE, chief executive director, Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, Arlington, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

Retirement is not in my immediate plans, but I have issued an administrative policy outlining the expanded authority of department heads in case of an extended absence. Additionally, the board has adopted a policy that outlines a number of steps to take in both the short and intermediate term to select a successor. The policy allows the board to determine if the current executive director will take part in the selection process. The policy expands the role of the chief elected officer to communicate directly with department heads during the transition. There are also a communications plan for stakeholder notification, a calendar of events, and guidelines for creating a search committee or using an outside consultant, developing a transitional financial plan, and conducting an organization assessment to identify short, intermediate, and long-term issues to be addressed by the new executive director.

—G. Lawrence Merrill, CAE, executive director, Michigan Townships Association, Lansing, Michigan. Email: [email protected]

The Society of Professional Benefit Administrators just went through the process of succession planning. The vice president and I had a long, informal agreement amongst us and with the board that if I was not around, she would become president. After September 11, 2001, this was formally incorporated into our disaster plan, and we operated day to day essentially as copresidents. In 2009, I asked to move to semiretirement as of January 1, 2011. The long-established succession plan transitioned smoothly. She is now president, and she asked me to remain as active past president. Too many executives are paranoid about job security and having a successor in the wings. That attitude leaves your association like an airliner without a fully involved copilot ready to step in.

—Fred Hunt, active past president, Society of Professional Benefit Administrators, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Email: [email protected]