Planning for Change: Who’s Next to Lead

Abby Drane was named president and CEO of Uspiritus less than two years ago, but she already has a good idea of whom she’ll recommend to succeed her at the organization.

“I’ve seen a lot of succession planning,” says Drane, who has more than 25 years of experience in the field of behavioral health services, holds an MBA and is a CPA, and has extensive executive leadership experience with two of Kentucky’s largest community mental health centers. “The first step is you identify the person. Emotional intelligence is one of the most important pieces for me.”

Good succession planning, Drane says, is started sooner rather than later. “You do it regardless of how long you’re planning to remain. I won’t be around here forever. Everyone on my executive team is a potential next CEO.”

With a strong business-oriented background, Drane says she tries to ensure that her potential successors understand the connection between the mission of Kentucky-based Uspiritus, which serves at-risk children, and the organization’s continuing viability.

Sometimes, Drane says, boards will promote from within without understanding the needs and goals of an organization or the qualities they want in their leader. Consequently, they choose someone who doesn’t do much to move the organization forward.

“We really need to consider how to achieve a return on investment,” Drane says.

Recent changes at the top of several CHHSM organizations across the country highlight the importance of planning ahead to ensure seamless transitions in leadership. By taking the long view, organizations help sustain and advance their missions.

Uspiritus is among 15 CHHSM ministries that have experienced leadership transitions in past two years, including CHHSM itself. Members that have recently welcomed new leaders include Beatitudes Campus, now led by Michelle Just, and Peppermint Ridge, led by Danny McCarns. Sara McVey replaced longtime President and CEO Bob Anderson at Horizon House in 2015. And earlier this year, West Bend, Wisconsin-based Cedar Community welcomed President and CEO Lynn Olson, while Ann R. Schiff took the helm at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California. In July, UCAN President and Chief Operating Officer Zack Schrantz will replace Thomas Vanden Berk as CEO.

Effective succession planning is a responsibility shared by the executive and the board of directors, to whom the ultimate decision about new leadership falls. But Drane and others see identifying and developing the next generation of leaders as a critical part of their roles.

Michelle Just was handed the reins at Beatitudes Campus in early 2014 after years at the Phoenix continuing care retirement community, providing a smooth transition in leadership thanks to careful planning.

As a senior vice president, Just knew what to expect as a candidate for the top spot. She was one of four, two internal and two external, she says.

“The process was incredibly transparent,” Just says. “That’s very important. At a time of change, staff and all stakeholders can feel a lot of angst. The process was clear.”

She knew what the board wanted – someone who understood the culture of the community while simultaneously understanding how to evolve it. Now as the chief executive herself, Just is thinking about the future and how to ensure Beatitudes remains strong.

“It’s a matter of developing bench strength – developing from within,” she says. “That’s one of the top things that a CEO should be doing. Who do you have within your ranks? Who do you want to help develop into stronger leaders?”

Then, she says, it’s a matter of giving those leaders the opportunity to grow.

Danny McCarns entered the nonprofit world about a year ago after a long career in state government. Today she leads Peppermint Ridge in Corona, California, a provider for individuals with developmental disabilities. She took the job with a clear understanding of the goals the organization was trying to achieve.

McCarns was sensitive to her organization’s 57-year history and the board’s goal when it hired her as executive director.

“The board is challenged to ensure the longevity of The Ridge – to take care of the issues of today but also to look to the future,” McCarns says.

In addition to ensuring a clear transition plan is in place, she says she’s always on the lookout for potential successors with the right mindset and the right heart.

“Being a leader is about raising people up to be leaders as well – to be a leader where ego isn’t the driving force. A true leader is a servant.”

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