Finding Success after Succession

By Russell Cambria, Executive Director/CEO

We’ve all read about examples of poor succession in what were once great organizations but couldn’t find their way into a promising future under new leadership. This happens in churches, ministries, businesses, and schools all over the country, probably more times than we’d like to admit. Succession is delicate and requires a great deal of cooperation (and faith). I am quickly reminded that success after succession has little to do with me, specifically, but more to do with what had been happening within the organization prior to my arrival to assume the leading role. It has just as much to do with the ability to recognize and genuinely appreciate those things and honor those who first held the reigns. 

Many times, as young and excited leaders, we accept a leading role and within weeks, or sometimes a few months, those inside and outside of the organization ride the waves of immediate change, shake-ups, new vision, etc. etc… Leading an organization into the future is exciting, but demands hard work, some political savviness, discernment, and an ability to listen to and survey the unheard thoughts and feelings of those around you. 

Yes! You want a new leader to have fresh vision and passion, but without excellent communication regarding the context behind the determination to initiate change, a new leader will run into 3 risks with potentially devastating results and setbacks.

Risk 1: Unintentionally Demeaning the Past and Those Who Have Laid Foundational Work.

Communicating vision is an excellent skill for any leader to possess. Donors, staff, and even students (in our case at Adult & Teen Challenge) are watching and listening for clues as to what will become of the organization they are dedicated to. Remember, succeeding a long-term predecessor means that they have not likely had to do this before. Change, even “good change” to them can be unnerving. The danger a new leader must be careful to avoid can be found within the message they are communicating when speaking life into fresh vision. Casting a fresh new outlook on the future of the organization should never come at the expense of diminishing all of the work that has already taken place that has led the organization to this present moment. Honoring the past, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because you realize that without the efforts made by the teams that preceded you, you wouldn’t have the privilege of leading into the future, without first taking months or years to revisit the past. When making changes, do so in a way that highlights great possibilities, not missed opportunities!

Risk 2: Assuming All on The Team Are on Board For The Long Haul.

This involves more than just your staff. Your “team” is larger than you might think. I am referring to board members, donors, volunteers, alumni, and staff. Basically, this category includes everyone except you and your family. Just because a team member or board member hasn’t resigned within your first few weeks, doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Remember, they’re still determining whether your new vision for the organization has a place for them, and whether it aligns with their call to ministry, or simply their interests. Get to know your team as individuals, not just who they are within their organizational roles. Ask questions. Once getting to know them, I asked a few key leaders within our organization, as well as those who demonstrate leadership potential, how I can be an asset to them in their professional journey. As a leader, I genuinely like to produce other leaders. It’s just something you do and part of the responsibility leaders have when placed in authority over others. Ask questions, get to know them, offer your assistance. If they choose to exit the organization, help them find success and do not take it personally. I am a firm believer that when someone resigns, another wakes up with a calling to work for your ministry. Afterall, who is the Lord of the harvest? Thankfully, as a leader, that specific role isn’t placed on my shoulders. Pray. 

Risk 3: Becoming Paralyzed By the FEAR of Positive Progress. 

This risk is the opposite of Risk 1, but those who don’t struggle with the first risk may struggle with this one. The fear of progress often can accompany a leader when the previous leader remains closely connected to the organization. He/She still knows your donors, your board members, staff, etc. In fact, many of them continue hold that leader in high regard and rightfully so. An insecure leader, or one that has issues with his/her own ego, will find conflict awaits if this isn’t delt with appropriately. One must remember, the board made a choice when they hired you. They CHOSE you. You represent the future, and all that God is going to do through your tenure. Do not let pride, insecurity, or jealousy ruin your leadership. Find value in what your predecessor has to offer if he/she remains connected, but set clearconcise, and healthy boundaries because those protect you, the ministry, and your staff. Do not be afraid to move forward with a BIG idea if the Lord leads you to do it. If you communicate it correctly and with great care, you can project vision without expense. You can generate excitement and not unintentionally suggest the organization lacked it prior to your arrival. You can honor the past and allow those who have gone before you to share in the fact that they, too, can claim victory for growth that occurs after their time with the organization has ended. 

Lastly- Remember that your predecessor may have played a role in you becoming the successor. He/she saw potential in you and communicated that to the organization’s board. In the same way you were viewed as great potential, return the favor at every opportunity to pay respect for those who paved your way.