It is important to remember that without clear leadership transition plans in place, things can go awry.
By DR TAN LAI YONG
Sometimes we see non-profits fade away. Others explode into the media with stories of unwelcome leadership squabbles. One way to ensure long-term sustainability and a healthy organisation is to face the tough, but needed, task of grooming new leaders. Volunteers are hard to come by and it can be overwhelming for present leaders to even think about the idea of grooming leaders from amongst the volunteers. However, we should always be planning to handover leadership.
Leadership transition and handover is not an event but a process. We need to identify good people and in our “routine” daily work, empower them to take over areas of responsibility. We also need to be mindful that we do not micro-manage. The 26th US President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
In the popular TV series, “Crime Scene Investigation” (CSI), we see that the police always use yellow tape to cordon off the crime scene. That allows the scene to be untouched and experts to work undisturbed. In leadership, we should draw up some parameters that will help handover and allow incoming leaders to flourish. I found it helpful to think of three points in non-profit leadership changes:
C – Cut the budget
S – Settle the quarrels
I – Introduce the leader
Cut the budget
It is tough to get new leaders for non-profit organisations. But it is next to impossible to find a new leader who is willing to inherit a project or a department with an inflated budget deficit. Even if he or she is willing, it is a lousy start to a leadership experience to come into a team or project and have the ugly task of slashing budgets; this invariably upsets people. In order to prepare for leadership handover especially in non-profits, VWOs and other volunteer groups, the outgoing leadership must work on giving the new leader a trim budget.
Settle the quarrels
We are humans and face people-to-people friction. The tensions and friction may be heightened in non-profits as we work with people with big ideals and great passion. The outgoing leadership must settle the quarrels and rifts within the core community. We have to bite the bullet and listen to our people, heal the wounds, and apologise where apologies are due. This allows the new leader to come in with a clean slate and not inherit messy interpersonal relationships.
The 18th century English author and inventor, Thomas Paine, who was involved in the French and American Revolution wrote, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.” What is true for parenting is also true for leadership – existing leadership should settle the trouble of the day – the office quarrels and interpersonal conflicts – before thinking about handing over to new leaders. (I find it instructive that as an inventor, Paine designed bridges and was given the patent for the single span iron bridge.)
Introduce the (new) leader
Introducing the new leaders sounds like an obvious task, but remember, it takes time and effort to bring a new leader into the inner circle. Leadership transition is not just about handing over accounts and budgets. The outgoing leader(s) should bring the new leader(s) to meet people. This is very important in our Asian society. For transition to take place, we must know our incoming people. We go beyond the perfunctory task of handing out name cards to a process of getting to know our people stakeholders – such as the board of governors, grassroot volunteers and administrative staff – so as to share his or her heartbeat with them. We should set the stage for a meeting of hearts and minds as this is the lifeblood of volunteerism.
As mentioned, leadership handover is not an event but a process. Messy handovers are often laced with money and interpersonal issues. The best handover occurs when we pass on a trim platform to a new leader who is well-trained, confident, empowered and knowledgeable of the key stakeholders. The new leader can then carry out the vision and mission of the organisation and be free to take off with new energies. After all, the point of handing over leadership is so that they carry out the task with fresh vigour and not come in to just clean up the mess that we leave behind. Good leadership handover therefore requires good leadership during the process.
From 1996 to 2010, Dr Tan Lai Yong lived in Yunnan, China, as part of a community development team working with poverty affected villages. Dr Tan established a village “barefoot” doctors training programme and helped with some village toilet projects. He also arranged for volunteer teams from Singaporean schools and hospitals to visit Yunnan. In November 2010, Tan returned to Singapore. He is now a full-time student at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS). His work in Yunnan has been taken over by a group of younger and more dynamic doctors – from Singapore and China.