Be prepared for leadership transitions, get started with this guide and share what you’re learning
Succession planning is a key part of being prepared for leadership transitions. But the transition itself takes place over a much longer period of time and entails much more than what is considered traditional succession planning. That’s why I created the News Executive Leadership Transition Guide.
When I first started thinking about my fellowship pitch to RJI in late 2021 and early 2022, I based my idea on a hunch.
It consisted of two, interrelated ideas: 1) We were on the cusp of an acceleration of founders and executives departing from digital-only, independent news organizations. 2) As a result of those transitions, we would see a high degree of interest in planning for succession where there had been none before. Therefore, my pitch was to help fill the coming gap — to create a succession planning guide for those news organizations.
It wasn’t long before several high-profile departures became public. Once I received the fellowship and my project was announced, I started to (and continue to) hear from executives and organizations who are clamoring for help in how to plan for these transitions. It seemed I was onto something, and I felt extremely lucky to explore this topic and provide something useful to the industry as a result.
Along the fellowship journey, with assistance from accomplished and generous people inside and outside the field of journalism, I expanded the concept of my idea from succession planning to leadership transition planning.
These important nuances came up again and again:
- Planning is often thought of in terms of strategy and tactics alone, but the human factor in leadership transitions cannot be underestimated. Both the person departing and the people left behind can experience many different emotions about the experience. Those emotions can be heightened when the person leaving is a founder or a long-time executive.
- So much about planning for leadership transitions is rooted in solid operational governance and processes. Independent and smaller news organizations that start to plan for leadership transitions will realize the need for infrastructure, policies and procedures. They will also become more aware of the value that capable and skilled governing bodies can provide — and the need to recruit members for those bodies differently than they did at first.
The launch guide consists of four main parts:
- An explanation of and worksheets for emergency succession planning
- A look at the role of executive and strategic leadership team development in preparing for leadership transitions, with checklists to use for regularly evaluating executives and leadership teams
- Checklists for executive discernment and transition planning, with a special section on advice from leaders who left their role as executives in the last several years
- An exposition on the concept of departure-defined succession planning, with checklists for different parts of the process
Because the guide has multiple checklists and worksheets, I encourage people to make their own copies and to adapt the templates as needed. That’s a big reason why I decided to use a Google doc as the way to publish.
I have grown more and more interested in this topic over time. So I will continue to research, write and advise on leadership transition and will make updates to the guide.
Two sections I’d like to add soon are — communicating and orchestrating departures and another on onboarding and welcoming a new leader. I’d also like to widen the topic to individuals and teams that aren’t executives.
I invite folks to suggest updates to this first version of the guide, whether they are small tweaks or ideas about other sections. Please share those suggestions or any questions about this work with me here. And thank you for reading and supporting this work!
This article was originally published by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Amy is a member of the RJI Fellows Class of 2022-2023.