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Changing of the Guard

Many people have written about the need for non-profit arts and culture groups to have board-approved succession plans for addressing planned or unplanned leadership transitions. Foundations often require grantees to have up-to-date succession plans, as a governance “best-practice” metric and, sometimes, as a subtle prod to those with long-time leaders, especially founders, to plan for the future.

With the proliferation of arts and culture groups now led by baby boomers, some of whom are reluctant to exit stage left, it is understandable that so much of the writing on succession planning has focused on how to get leaders to leave and how to find their replacements.1 As the pace of these inevitable leadership transitions increases, however, it is time to focus more on the challenges of preparing those who follow to be successful.

In The First 90 Days, author Michael D. Watkins tells leaders that “the actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail.” He believes that leaders often fail, or do not realize their potential, when they lack the ability to navigate some of the unique challenges that new leaders face. Watkins posits that a new leader’s success requires a carefully designed 10-step process during this critical transition period. Some of the key steps include:

  • “Preparing yourself,” by recognizing that what worked in your old job may or may not work in the new one;
  • “Accelerating your learning” about the new organization’s products, markets, systems, culture and politics;
  • “Matching your strategy to the situation,” based on a clear diagnosis of what is needed;
  • “Securing early wins,” to build credibility and momentum;
  • “Negotiating success,” to manage expectations carefully;
  • “Building your team,” so you have the right people to help you succeed; and
  • “Achieving alignment” and “creating coalitions” to support the strategic direction.

Almost 75% of over 1,300 senior HR leaders Watkins surveyed agreed that “success or failure during the first three months is a strong predictor of overall success or failure.” With those odds, it behooves every new leader to follow his advice and add “develop 90-day plan” to the initial “To Do” list.

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