How to Prepare for a Sudden CEO Vacancy

By: Linda J. Shinn, FASAE, CAE

Succession planning for the unexpected. [Titled "The Last Letter" in the print edition.]

Succession planning is a relatively new phenomenon in the nonprofit community. In many instances, if succession plans exist at all, they are designed for situations in which replacement of an executive can proceed in an orderly fashion. But what about preparing for an unanticipated vacancy in the role of chief staff executive due to death, illness, or incapacity?

Curtis Rostad, CAE, CEO of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association (IFDA), has prepared his organization for just such a scenario. "Our members talk with people every day about planning—planning for death. Dying is part of life, and we help people get ready for it," Rostad says. "My responsibility is no different. It is important that I ready my leaders for a sudden vacancy in my position."

To that end, Rostad created a "last letter" to be opened by the IFDA president only in the event of his death or incapacity. The first sentence advises the president not to panic and then identifies the steps to be taken at once to ensure the organization's continued operation.

While such a list will be different in different organizations, Rostad says, it typically would include such critical information as

  • passwords for the CEO's computer and other electronic devices
  • information on payroll processing
  • key contact information for the association's accountant, attorney, landlord, and other vendors
  • location of bank accounts and passwords required for access
  • identification of insurance policies
  • requirements for check signing
  • contract information
  • facts about staff, such as who can be trusted with confidential information and who might serve as an interim executive director.

Although some of this information may be known or available in office files, putting it at the president's fingertips during an emotional and confusing time is an important purpose of the last letter.

Some association executives make informal agreements with a colleague who would be willing to step into the CEO position briefly in the event of an emergency to work with leaders and staff to keep the organization running. In that case, the person's identity should be included in the last letter.

Rostad keeps his letter in a location that only he and the IFDA president know about (and they move it periodically), but some executives might choose to entrust their letter to the care of legal counsel or a confidante outside the organization. The letter should be updated annually.

Boards are often reluctant to plan for succession, and the chief staff executive may not want to bring it up for fear that doing so might create the impression that he or she is getting ready to leave. Rostad notes that a discussion of succession planning when you are thoughtfully deliberating the future of the organization makes sense. He also suggests that succession planning might be more palatable to leaders if it is done when the executive is new to the job. As a CEO's tenure lengthens, boards naturally wonder how much longer the CEO will be with them, making it more difficult to raise the issue of succession planning without causing unnecessary concern.

After seven years at IFDA, Rostad's goal is to leave the organization someday in as good or better shape than he found it. Planning for succession in his role is an important part of ensuring that the organization will succeed long after he is gone.

Linda J. Shinn, FASAE, CAE, is principal of Consensus Management Group in Indianapolis. Email: [email protected]

Linda J. Shinn, FASAE, CAE

Linda J. Shinn, FASAE, CAE, is president and CEO of Consensus Management Group.