Chapters in Crisis: Handling & Preventing Chapter Leader Succession Issues
It’s a bit miraculous. Year after year, volunteers step up, take on chapter leadership roles, then step aside for the next set of leaders. But you can’t count on miracles. What if no one wants to step up? What if the same people are always stepping up? What if a chapter leader goes AWOL, then what? You’ve got a chapter leader succession crisis on your hands, that’s what.
We’ve been covering all kinds of nightmare scenarios in this series on chapters in crisis:
- Financial mismanagement
- Financial fraud
- Compliance issues
- Data privacy
- Website disasters
- Struggling chapter leaders
In this series, we assume chapters are subsidiaries, a situation that brings more risk to National, but also supposedly provides more control. Even if your components are independent, you’ll benefit from the advice we share.
Chapter crisis: chapter leader succession issues
Every component relations professional (CRP) has or will deal with one of these issues eventually.
Vacant leadership position(s)
It’s downright embarrassing. For a variety of reasons, the leadership ladder is empty. The outgoing president can’t stay on for another year, and other members aren’t willing to step up. Or maybe another position, like treasurer, is impossible to fill.
Another symptom of a succession problem is the same old faces—the same members cycling through officer and board positions. Along with stale leadership, you have the risk of burnout. Plus, this situation gives members the impression of a leadership club or exclusive clique.
The chapter has a president, but she seems to have vanished. You can’t get a hold of her by email or phone. If the chapter has other officers, they’re hesitant to “usurp” the position, but the clock is ticking.
Unexpected departure of leader
An illness, death, personal emergency, move, or removal from office requires the chapter to find a new leader quickly. The impact of this departure depends on how much notice was given and how much access the chapter has to the former leader. Chaos could reign if other leaders need to transfer check signatories or lose access to bank accounts or software platforms.
Dealing with a leadership succession crisis
Once you understand the situation, craft a compelling series of emails for the chapter about the need for its members to stand up and contribute. Remind members: without them, there is no community.
If the chapter board can’t get one person to take on a leadership role, they can divide the responsibilities among themselves or another group of capable volunteers. Ask chapter directors to personally ask qualified candidates for their help.
Help the chapter conduct an emergency leadership recruitment campaign. Cast a wide net. Look for people who have leadership experience with other organizations, such as chambers, scouts, churches, and service clubs. Provide these recruits an accelerated leadership training program along with coaching support from National and past leaders of other chapters.
In the case of a missing chapter leader, maybe they’re overwhelmed by their real job or a personal crisis. Send them an email (and leave a voicemail too) expressing your concern. Can you help in any way? Can you arrange help for them? Do they need to step aside for a while or step down permanently? Let them know that together you must resolve the situation—put a deadline on it. Otherwise, you’ll have to arrange for their replacement.
If a leader has permanently departed the scene, who’s next in line? Be prepared to provide coaching and support. Don’t try to hide the situation from members. You don’t need to spill all the beans (if they’re confidential), but announce the unexpected departure and ask for their patience during the transition.
Finally, find out what’s really going on. Why isn’t there an interest in leadership? Why are the same members cycling through leadership positions? Is this a systemic issue? Is this chapter viable?
Have individual confidential conversations with past leaders as well as board directors and other volunteer leaders. Find out whether the positions are asking too much of volunteers. Assess the chapter’s leadership recruitment and development efforts.
Preventing a leadership succession crisis
Chapter boards have the responsibility and duty of building a leadership pipeline and bench. National has a critical role to play by providing leadership training resources, such as a new leader playbook, video series, or online course that guides new leaders through what they need to know and do in their new position.
Chapters must dedicate time and resources to not only train incoming leaders but also members who may be interested in leadership five to ten years from now. For example, young professional groups can offer leadership opportunities for the next generation of leaders. Chapters or National could also run academies or programs for emerging leaders.
Leadership scouting should be a continual activity. During new member onboarding, learn about their volunteering and leadership experience. Find out who has potential for chapter leadership.
Volunteering and leadership culture
National must also encourage chapters to foster an organizational culture that shares the benefits of leadership service, that is, the opportunity to make a difference. Take steps to make leadership positions more desirable by dividing responsibilities so more members have the opportunity to develop leadership skills.
Many chapters think of volunteering only in terms of board and committee service. They neglect the importance of ad hoc volunteering or microvolunteering. Ad hoc or microvolunteering involves short stints of volunteering, perhaps 30 minutes to an hour or two. It’s a great way for members to engage with their chapter—and is often the first step toward deeper involvement.
Advisory boards and task forces provide temporary leadership development opportunities that don’t require a long stretch of time.
No one should hold all the keys to the kingdom. Chapters should follow policies and procedures that mandate financial management best practices. Credentials (usernames and passwords) should be securely stored where other officers can access them. National can act as a backup or “safe deposit box” for confidential information.
Invest in technology that automates repetitive tasks and alleviates the administrative burden of chapter leaders. With a virtual or consolidated banking solution, if a chapter leader departs, you won’t have to worry about transferring check signatories or deal with inaccessible physical bank accounts. National can step in and quickly provide access to the next chapter leader.
With a proactive approach to leadership development and succession planning, chapters are less likely to deal with vacant positions and recycled leadership. If a leader departs the scene, the chapter may experience a hiccup, but it can move on.
The next post in this “chapters in crisis” series examines outsourcing and hiring nightmares.