Your Emergency Succession Plan: Why you need it. What goes in it.
In 2003, I was conducting research for a humanitarian project in what is now South Sudan. Then Sudan was engaged in a civil war between the North and South.
To enter Southern Sudan, we were required to go through safety training. This included basic skills in remote evacuation and survival, land navigation, radio operations, first aid, threat awareness (landmines, air attacks, ground attacks), and so on.
When we arrived in a new community, the first order of business was to build a security plan. This was built with local leaders who were often rebel commanders.
The nature and direction of recent and anticipated threats would be discussed. Bomb shelters and foxholes would be either identified or dug.
We’d map and identify the best options, routes, and rendezvous points in case of an immediate evacuation.
We constantly carried “go-bags”, backpacks filled with basic survival gear.
Before we started work in a location — we had a literal exit plan. We were ready to use it.
When we arrived at the village of Kimatong, there hadn’t been fighting in years. The people were friendly. It felt safe, as long as we didn’t think too hard about the rebel garrison camped out directly behind us…
We were tired. There was a lot of other work to do. The war felt distant. Security planning didn’t feel necessary.
Ours was half-hearted and rushed.
No foxholes existed and we didn’t want to dig one. So, we chose a flash-flood washout near camp. It was an 8’ drop to the bottom. But we figured it would work in a pinch.
In terms of evacuation routes, we would run…away.
I did still carry my “go-bag”. But at night in my tent, I relaxed.
I didn’t pack my gear before going to sleep. I didn’t position my boots by the tent door, I didn’t put my socks where I could find them by feel in the dark. I spread out.
It was nice.
Then The Shooting and Screaming…
Bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap! One night, I was lurched awake by automatic gunfire and women screaming. It was pitch black. The rebel garrison, a hundred feet behind me, snapped awake as well.
- I can’t see anything outside the tent — I’m blind.
- If I turn on a flashlight would that make me a target?
- There is shouting all around me — what direction is the danger coming from?
- My go-bag was open, did it have what I needed?
- I can’t find my socks! Where is my other boot? Do I need them? Yes, I need them!
- I’ll grab them and run for the wash-out. Oh, no! How do we get down that 8-foot drop?
I unzipped my tent, bracing myself for a tumble down the washout — and the shooting stopped.
There was more yelling.
Finally, an accented voice called in English, “It’s alright!” “Everything is alright!”
It was a rebel search party announcing their return.
They had left the previous day to look for a crashed pilot. They were successful, found the pilot, and marched back through the night. Perhaps it was a practical joke. Or maybe they felt disappointed no one waited up for them. But they had decided to empty a few celebratory magazines.
I lay down again. Embarrassed and a little frightened by how grossly unprepared I was.
No one went back to sleep.
Plans work better if you have them before you need them.
Most organizations relate to emergency succession planning similarly. Planning tends to land in the organizational junk drawer of “stuff-we-know-we-should-do” but never get around to it. There is always something else more exciting or important to do. It just doesn’t feel urgent.
To be frank, most emergency succession plans aren’t written until there is pressure from either an accrediting agency, a major client/lender/insurer/donor and so on.
Those organizations regularly see the real-world consequences of being unprepared. They know that roughly two-thirds of CEOs depart unexpectedly or with abbreviated notice. They recognize the frequency with which CEOs pursue other opportunities, move, fall ill, get burned out, have an accident, experience a family disruption, get fired, are arrested, or die.
What does a good emergency succession plan look like?
A good plan should contain at least the five following elements:
- It clarifies authority: It provides a quick and simple definition of who oversees the succession planning process.
- Who makes what decisions?
- How will they be made?
- Who decides when things go back to normal?
2. It addressed a temporary and short-term absence: This plan typically considers unplanned absences of (usually) less than three months. Typically, it will include:
- A description of core authority or functions that an acting CEO will acquire
- The “line-of-succession” is pre-defined. Who will be the acting CEO? What if that person isn’t available?
- Who needs to be communicated to and what needs to be said?
3. It addresses a temporary but long-term absence: This plan builds on the previous — but is for situations where the CEO will be gone longer than (usually) three months. It also includes:
- Should an interim CEO be employed?
- Should the CEO role be broken up and shared among senior staff?
4. It addresses an unplanned, permanent absence: This plan builds on the above plans but includes guidance on how to permanently fill the position. This includes:
- How to go about recruiting and selecting a new CEO.
- How to address the gap period until that position is filled.
5. A Key-Contact and Critical Information list: This is a list of where all the critical documents are filed, where passwords are kept, and all the key internal and external contacts.
Simple. But requires doing.
Emergency succession plans are relatively simple. But they require time and attention before they are needed.
If an emergency comes — don’t be me, scrambling around my tent, in the dark, in the middle of Sudan.
Be prepared. No CEO lasts forever. Most leave faster than you think.
Nice Side Benefit
Emergency succession planning doesn’t just give you a plan. The process itself contributes to overall organizational health. It provokes important questions about leadership development, skill distribution, single points of failure, financial management & controls, record keeping, and so on.
Download my free template and create stability for your organization in the event of an unplanned departure.
Take good care,