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Vol. 40, No. 1

NABE panel: Successful succession planning takes honesty, humanity, willingness to change

by Marilyn Cavicchia

If you’re a management-level bar employee other than the executive director, do you have a good succession plan in place?

Denise DeStefano, assistant executive director at the New Hampshire Bar Association, suggested an exercise that will expose any gaps in that plan: “Give somebody else an assignment that is normally yours, and see if they can find what they need to do your job, using your filing system.”

At the NHBA, this is anything but a hypothetical, DeStefano told attendees at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives. She is the first of five managers who will retire in the next four years. DeStefano has been with the NHBA for 24 years; among the managers who are retiring, the one with the shortest term has been there for 15 years.

That’s a lot of time to develop institutional knowledge and idiosyncratic processes that can’t easily be duplicated—which is one reason it’s “very disruptive to lose key staff,” said fellow panelist James Zaniello, founder and president of Vetted Solutions, an executive search firm for associations and nonprofits.

Succession planning is one of the most important things for any organization, Zaniello said, but it’s often considered “too dicey” to discuss. However uncomfortable, he advised, it’s important to have succession plans in place before you need them and to be “as collaborative and communicative as possible.”

Rounding out the panel was Sebrina Barrett, executive director of The Missouri Bar. Like the NHBA, The Missouri Bar has many longtime staff members; most have been there for 15 to 40 years, Barrett said, and her assistant has now worked under three different executive directors.

Several senior managers who had been at the bar for more than 20 years decided to retire at the same time as the outgoing executive director, Barrett noted. All told, since becoming executive director after a 10-month transition period as associate director, she has either hired or promoted 17 people—which is a third of the bar’s staff. Another nine or 10 staff members will retire in the next five years.

Succession planning never ends, the panelists stressed—which is why it should be made a regular part of the bar’s operations, rather than something scary that’s only tackled when it absolutely has to be.

Laying the groundwork

One important step, Zaniello said, is to review all job descriptions annually and get a sense of where there might be some changes coming. Even if you don’t have a human resources director, he added, it helps if you have “a strong HR function in place.”

Barrett asks that all her staff create a procedure manual for their positions. These are usually organized by month and cover such details as what the different tasks are, and the budgets for certain projects.

Cross-training is also helpful, she added, not just when someone leaves, but also in cases of illness, vacation, or other absence. “There should not be any task that only one person in your office knows how to do,” she stressed.

Also important, all the panelists agreed, is to break down the “silos” that often exist within individual departments. Barrett initiated quarterly all-staff meetings to discuss who’s doing what. There’s also a daily email regarding what’s going on that day, such as any events, special visitors, etc., and a monthly email on a particular human resources topic.

The NHBA gives its board members a similar window onto what the staff is doing, via a monthly “You Should Know” e-newsletter with updates on important projects and programs.

The overall goal, the panelists said, is to create a culture where the executive director and the staff have at least some knowledge of what everyone is doing and how the work can get done if someone leaves.

Transition and ‘onboarding’

Ideally, Barrett said, there should be a three- to six-month overlap period where the person who’s leaving (assuming this is for retirement or another positive reason) helps the new person get up to speed.

DeStefano is going beyond that, with a two-year transition period to help make things easier for the new hire and for the bar. DeStefano expects that the new person will be younger than she is, and probably more tech savvy and maybe even more efficient—so she has no illusions that everything will continue to be done exactly the same way she’s done them for 24 years. In fact, she said, “It’s time to shake things up.”

Along with a gracious predecessor, there are a number of other things that can help a new hire start on a good note, Barrett said: “First impressions are important.” That means making sure current employees know that someone new will be starting, that the new person’s office is set up and comfortable, that there’s a computer and password in place, and that the new employee is walked around and introduced to others.

Zaniello agreed that such basic courtesies are important, and added another must-have for the first day: business cards. Being prepared, he said, is a great way to say, “’We’re so excited for you to be here.’”

One thing that surprised Barrett when she first started overseeing transitions was the anxiety and sadness that remaining staff members often feel. Be sensitive to those emotions, she advised—after all, in many cases, we spend more time with our coworkers than with our own families, so it’s natural that strong bonds develop.

What if the exit isn’t quite voluntary?

Much of this advice is predicated on the person leaving in a way that is completely amicable and mutual. But Zaniello pointed out a few common scenarios in which a person may not need to be fired for cause but may need to be let go before he or she is ready.

For example, he said, you may have to tell someone that after 20 or more years at the bar association, you can no longer give them even cost-of-living raises, and they need to make an exit plan.

Another situation that’s common among associations, Zaniello said, is that there’s a staff member who has been there for pretty much his or her entire career, and whom members love—but there’s simply no room for that person to advance, or the association needs to move in a different direction.

In a case like that, Zaniello noted, a lot of experts would advise terminating the person right away so he or she can’t cause any damage. But Zaniello believes it’s important to “be humane.”

If it’s the middle of the year, he said, unless the person is openly hostile and negative, you might say that he or she needs to leave by the end of the year. Further, he suggested, publicly acknowledge and celebrate that person’s service. The transition still won’t be easy for anyone involved, he added, but it will be much better than an exit that is handled hastily and without kindness.

One great reason for both parties not to burn bridges? “One of the best places for you to recruit from is your alumni pool,” Zaniello said. Perhaps down the road, your former employee can refer a good candidate for another position. Or you might even find that a few years later and with more experience, it makes sense for that same employee to come back at a more senior level than before.

An opportunity for change

“Just because it’s structured this way now, doesn’t mean it has to be,” DeStefano said; her departure and those in the next few years could prompt some healthy reorganization.

The bar association is in a very different place from where it was 24 years ago, DeStefano noted, with shrinking law school enrollment and increased expectations among members—so the wave of retirements could be a good time to “change the model” in some way rather than exactly replacing those who are leaving.

Zaniello and Barrett agreed that a manager’s departure is, as Barrett put it, “an opportunity to be thoughtful” regarding changes in the legal landscape, technology, and other factors that might call for changes in job responsibilities and titles.

The person leaving, again assuming it’s on good terms, needs to embrace the change, too, the panelists said—and to know when it’s time to go. “Once the transition is over,” Barrett said, “it’s very important for the person to leave completely, not hang around and make things difficult for their successor.”

DeStefano is well prepared for that, and has made sure her bar is, too—but acknowledged that parting may still be bittersweet. “It’ll probably be harder on me the first time my phone doesn’t ring, and someone doesn’t need me,” she said.