Succession Planning for Partnerships

Partnerships can be greatly affected when key people change. This is especially true in natural resource management agencies when a key person has important roles in many different partnerships. Perhaps you’ve seen this when a line officer or deciding official leaves and a new person arrives. Or when a coordinator, planning specialist, or public affairs person goes on a temporary assignment or detail. Sometimes it leaves a gap and other times a new player steps in.

Planning for these inevitable transitions is often called “succession planning” and it is essential. There has always been churn and nowadays is no exception, whether someone is retiring, going on a detail, or taking a new position or assignment. How you handle these changes makes a huge difference to you, to your partners, and to others in your organization.

I’ve worked on many transitions, and occasionally taken positions where little planning had occurred ahead of my arrival. Here are three tips and two tools you might find useful to smooth out the bumps in the road.

My first tip is to recognize that transitions are inevitable. Make them part of how you do business. What I mean by this is to make transition management and succession planning part and parcel of how you and your partners work together. We all know changes like these are unavoidable and often unpredictable. A wise person once said, “If you want a partnership to succeed, make sure it isn’t dependent upon any one person.” Anything you do upstream of a transition will help downstream.

Second, when a specific transition begins happening, plan and manage it in a collaborative way as much as possible. Involve the outgoing person, staff, and key partners in “sensemaking”, a collaborative approach to making sense of a situation. This doesn’t have to be complicated. Have a meeting to talk about the change and begin working together for as smooth a transition as possible. This does two things: it allows everyone to work collaboratively on moving forward and it helps the incoming person land in a more stable situation ready to move forward with you and the partners.

Third, and perhaps most important, keep transition planning simple. The outgoing person will have much on their mind, the remaining staff already have full-time jobs, and your partners always have enough to do. In my experience, nailing down every detail is less important than building for success. There’s truth in the old adage about not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. So, for example, when sensemaking with your partners, consider a brief phone call with some or all of them. Follow up by spending part of a meeting sharing what you’ve heard. The simple approach conveys calmness and professionalism, as opposed to frantic or frenzied behavior that can come across as overreacting or worse.

In addition to these strategic tips, here are two tactical tools: a 30-60-90-day plan (Word) (PDF) and a Handover Memo.

A 30-60-90-day plan lays out key actions to take in the first, second, and third month. I like this tool because I can use it in different ways: as a guide to talk with partners and staff in planning a transition, as a briefing template for the new person, and as a working document after their arrival. It can help prioritize work and flag key events. We’ve developed a basic version that you’re welcome to use or modify. Tying this tool back to the previous tips, your sensemaking calls and meetings could be part this 30-60-90-day plan for the incoming person.

A Handover Memo is shared with partners inside and outside your organization - from the outgoing person to the incoming person. A Handover Memo summarizes key partnerships, upcoming events, and orientation-level facts about those relationships, often developed with the help of those very partners. The US Forest Service’s National Partnership Office, working with partners like the National Forest Foundation, first developed a template in about 2006. It’s widely used, sometimes in conjunction with a 30-60-90-day plan. The Handover Memo can help an incoming person, often a line officer or senior official, honor commitments made to partners and maintain momentum. In the years since, other agencies and organizations have adopted a similar instrument, often modifying it based on lessons learned and their specific needs.

So, there you have it: a few tips and tools you can use to do your own succession planning and transition management. Do you have others? The more good arrows in our community quiver, the better. Share your experience with the tools mentioned here, and let us know what worked for you.

February 22, 2018


Peter Williams, PhD

PBW Consulting 

Additional Resources:

30-60-90 Day Plan (Word) (PDF)

US Forest Service Handover Memo

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