I will be leaving a corporate Board of Director’s seat in a few weeks, ending about 28 years of service with that group. “That group” is Foldcraft Co., the firm for which I worked as an employee for more than 30 years, as well. To have remained on the board for so long has been a privilege as well as a point of pride; that any organization would tolerate my presence and outlooks for so long defies realistic expectations. But I have chosen to leave under my own terms and timing, which seems a fitting conclusion for so long a tenure. The change that it will create is an essential one. And therein lies a lesson for most organizations, I think, including ones in Nicaragua.
The lesson has everything to do with succession, that final piece in a sometimes long term of service wherein the responsibilities and obligations, the voice and the stewardship for the organization is passed along to whoever follows. It’s likely the most overlooked responsibility leaders deal with. That’s not to suggest that leaders don’t think about and plan for succession at all, but that they simply don’t prepare for the eventuality nearly well enough. That reality is why leadership succession represents one of the most vulnerable times in an organization’s entire life, and why organizational failures often occur within a short time after a succession has taken place.
I have often stated that perhaps the most important accomplishment I ever achieved during my employment at Foldcraft was turning over the leadership of the Company to the “right” successor. I still believe that to be true. But it also must be recognized that the effectiveness of that transition was years in the making, wherein senior authority and leadership became increasingly discussed, shared and strategized. In fact, one could argue that preparation for that particular succession evolved over nearly fifteen years. Successful succession in that instance was not an event, but rather a process of orientation, teaching, seasoning, making and learning from mistakes. Organizations rarely have fifteen years to prepare for a shift in leadership, but they owe it to themselves to be constantly preparing for the inevitable change.
And when the planning and preparation have been well provided for, the change in boardroom or management or committee setting can be- in fact, should be- a blast of fresh air. I hope and believe that my participation in recent Board meetings has not been stale or redundant. (You’d have to ask the others about whether that’s true or not.) But I also hope and believe that my successor will bring new chemistry to the process, challenging the way that conversations have evolved over the past 28 years, lending insights that I might never have had, and seeing the future of the organization through a new lens.
If, over the past years, I have brought any positive elements to the organization, I will trust that those characteristics will have impressed themselves on my colleagues and they will blend those singularities with the freshness of the newcomer. It’s the best of evolution, and our organizations deserve that step up in their continuity. No one is good forever, and even if they could be, there will come a time when the organization needs something else, something new.
One of the great disservices which befalls an organization is the perpetuation of same leadership. Leaders are comprised of the sum total of their life experiences and lessons. It’s the stuff from which they draw conclusions, make judgments and see the world. But no one possesses perfect vision or all-encompassing experiences, and by definition that means any leader is bound to misinterpret or misread from time to time. The capture of an alternative outlook sometimes can only be discovered through new insight born of different intelligence. Hence, the necessity for superb succession.
Some have argued that the risk of succession is primarily because the new leader might not possess the same values and perspectives that allowed the organization to function well in the first place. And that’s true, if the successor is relatively unknown to those who would make the appointment; any governing body’s primary obligation is to have a pretty intimate knowledge of its incoming leaders. Where that knowledge exists, the value of new energies will far outweigh the risk of detrimental decisions. (In any case, no leader should lead without checks and balances and the continuing governance structure should always provide a safety valve against an ill-advised direction.)
I’ll be spending time visiting cooperatives during the coming weeks and one of the essential qualities I hope to see is the provision for what happens when the leadership shift occurs. First of all, will one occur? And if so, under what process and preparedness? It may not feel like a priority to anyone today, but I can guarantee that it will be, and sooner than most are prepared for.
Yesterday, I remember wondering about the future and what it might hold for my organization. Today, as I prepare to leave it, I recognize all the promise and challenge once imagined in the past. Tomorrow, I hope neither I nor the rest of the organization will regret any lack of preparedness for what is to come….