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Why Succession Planning Doesn’t Mean You’re Giving Up

by Guest Blogger
We are pleased to offer this post by Shana Natelson, Executive Director of Speak About It, Inc, as part of our Mission Driven Leadershift series.

start-earlyI’m a 29-year-old Executive Director of a nonprofit that I founded after college. I never thought I’d say that, as I had no interest in nonprofit leadership until I created my own job position and title. What began as a small, for-profit startup up 2010 is now a fully functioning nonprofit with three staffers, 16 independent contractors, and a budget that requires the full 990 tax form. Speak About It, Inc. offers consent education and sexual assault prevention programming for high school and college students and has sparked dialogue with over 120,000 students.

I love this work, I love this nonprofit, and I’ve been thinking about succession planning since applying to be a nonprofit in 2012.

I feel like it’s almost a guilty confession, to say that I’ve been thinking about leaving my nonprofit since I started it, but as a charismatic founder, it seems irresponsible to leave the fate of the organization and our work to the last moments before I stomp out the door and kick the printer on the way out. For us, the impetus to become a nonprofit was to put structure in place that would allow the work to continue without me, the founder, needing to be at the heart of the organization. How can someone take my job title if the only thing in the job description is “Be Shana”? The creation of the nonprofit was the first step in my succession planning.

The Mistake I Want to Avoid

They say that it’s lonely being the Executive Director – the cheese stands alone at the top of the organization. If that’s the case, being the founder is even more difficult. As a young nonprofit, almost every decision that we make, we’re making for the first time.

Remember when I said I had zero nonprofit experience? Instead, I have a background as an athlete, and was fortunate enough to play ice hockey in college, which means I’m rife with sports analogies. In ice hockey, they say the possession of the puck changes every six seconds. That means that someone, even at the professional level, is making a mistake every six seconds. A good hockey player will make mistakes, acknowledge them, learn from it, and move on; if you dwell on your mistakes during the course of play, the game moves on without you and the mistake gets bigger.

To me, that sometimes feels like the position of being a young ED and founder: I’m constantly making mistakes as I’m making organizational decisions for the first time (“When’s our annual meeting?” “Why is our budget on the calendar year and not the academic year if that follows our revenue stream?” “How many f-bombs are the educators allowed to say during a high school performance?”).

The mistake I do not want to make is leaving the organization–one that I founded and love so dearly–in shambles because of a quick or unplanned exit on my part, or even worse, once I’ve burned out.

But there seems to be such a stigma around EDs and founders talking about succession planning. Why?

The Biggest Investment You Can Make

It’s very rare that folks will work one job for their entire careers – one recent article states that this generation will see up to seven career changes in their lifetime – and who can say when we will tire of or outgrow our current positions. And what’s the impact of being ready to leave a job? Our passion for the day-to-day dwindles, and our productivity takes a hit.

How can we effectively think about structure and institutional history once we already have one foot out the door?

With the goal of a successful transition in mind, every decision and action taken by the organization or myself is now being documented. We’ve just hired someone to do social media and marketing, and I realized there’s no formal documentation of key responsibilities and policies. We’ve created a shared document that outlines what our branded copy looks like. Do we take vacation days? Are they paid? Is that different for salaried vs. hourly employees? Who can I ask about this? What went from “Shana is the ED and she does what Shana wants” has now become a formalized job description with a performance evaluation conducted by our board.

The biggest benefits of succession planning? Everyone knows that a leadership transition is on the table, so we don’t shy away from having hard conversations, and we’re motivated to document everything we do as an organization.

If the good work that Speak About It does is solely based on my charm and good looks, it’s impossible to continue to create dialogue about sexual assault prevention when those assets fade, or walk out the door. Maybe, instead, we can think of succession planning as the biggest investment that EDs, especially founders, can make in their organizations by ensuring that both of us can be successful when we break up.* By laying the groundwork and asking hard questions now, we’re preparing for the day when Speak About It grows beyond me, and I can drink to that.

*Obviously, not every ED or founder will want or need to leave their organization. I met someone who had been the ED for 30+ years at the same nonprofit and hats off to you. But I think for many of us, a change in job title is somewhere in the future.

About the Author

shana2015-2Shana Natelson is the Executive Director of Speak About It, Inc and has overseen the performance and cast since graduating from Bowdoin College in 2010, where she spent four years playing ice hockey and talking about sex. Under her leadership, Speak About It has performed for over 120,000 students at 75+ high schools and universities across the country and around the world, sparking countless dialogues about consent education and sexual assault prevention. Shana lives in Portland, ME with her partner and their pup, Harvey, and can be found drinking fancy coffee, modeling bowties, and writing bad jokes.

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Browse more posts that are part of our Mission Driven Leadershift initiative.

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