Aaron Chavis

In history books 193 AD is remembered as the Roman Empire’s Year of Five Emperors. When the emperor Commodus was murdered on New Year’s Eve, it was unclear who the rightful heir to the throne was. A high ranking official, Pertinax, was declared emperor, but he angered the powerful Praetorian Guard and was assassinated after ruling for only three months. The guards then installed another noble, Didius Julianus, on the throne after he won a bidding war to bribe the soldiers. He too was assassinated. Two more emperors and two brief civil wars later, Septimus Severus finally took the uncontested command of a bloodied and exhausted Roman Empire.

This story illustrates a fact that was true of the Roman Empire and is still true of all organizations: they are at their most vulnerable during times of leadership change. When an executive director resigns from a nonprofit group with no plan in place for replacing them, it’s unlikely to result in anyone being beheaded, but it still could mean chaos for the group and its mission.

Aaron Chavis, a strategic advisor specializing in nonprofits, says leadership succession is a critical period that groups should plan for. “We have a three-step process. It’s a way for executives and boards as well as other key stakeholders to get clarity on why they need to participate in the process, as well as understand what they need to do within an organization to prepare for succession.”

Chavis speaks on planning for change and leadership transition on Wednesday, July 10, at the State Library at 185 West State Street in Trenton. The event is free. For more information visit www.statelib.org or call 609-278-2640.

Succession planning can be trickier in organizations where a board of directors is in charge than in a small business where a sole proprietor makes a decision. “If everyone is aligned, the program goes smoothly,” Chavis says. “If not sometimes the governing body, the executive director, and maybe some other players can have different agendas. Common conflicts can be related to political alignment. You have to make sure the organization is aligned from bottom to top.”

Groups can be caught flat footed if a leader leaves and there is no one ready to take their place. Chavis says the first step in succession planning is to prepare the group for the possibility that a succession may be coming up. “There is a need to groom individuals for leadership, but organizations are busy, or they don’t have the resources, or they don’t think they have the resources, and they let that fall to the wayside until it is too late,” he says.

Chavis says that long before a succession is looming, groups must put staff into leadership roles where they have opportunities to try things, fail, and learn from their mistakes.

“I recommend they treat it as if there is a succession coming even if there is not,” he says. “They should constantly be looking to develop internal staff for opportunities to move up the pipeline, and basically develop a pipeline of leadership as well as externally survey the industry for unexpected changes that may occur and can also lead to a need to change and adapt.”

The second step of succession planning is “cleaning house” and preparing the entire organization for the change. When a leader leaves, that presents an opportunity to reorganize the group. “You should go through an assessment to see how well your infrastructure that is in place is working,” Chavis says. He recommends looking at everything from the organization chart to the physical facilities and seeing what needs to be updated.

All of this needs to be conducted transparently to minimize the nervousness among staff that accompanies change. It can all go wrong if key people don’t buy into the changes.

Chavis, who had 18 years of experience in nonprofits before becoming a consultant two years ago, says it is critical to have top and middle managers on board. He recalls one instance where a board tried to dictate changes to a skeptical leadership structure only to be met with resistance the entire time. “The transition happened, but it could have been much better,” Chavis says.

In addition to looking at the organization chart, Chavis says, organizations should examine processes and procedures to see if resources could be used more effectively.

The last step is conducting the succession plan. It should go smoothly if the first two steps have been followed, but the new leader coming on board is another chance to re-examine job descriptions, policies, and procedures.

Chavis grew up in Trenton, and says working with nonprofits was a “natural calling” for him. His mother, a counselor, and his father, a corrections officer, were both in the business of dealing with personal and social problems. He says his grandmother was a “big mama” in the community who could be counted on to provide extra food or furniture to those in need. “They were always in the business of helping others,” Chavis says.

After graduating from Rowan University, Chavis worked for nonprofits in the Mercer County area including Life Ties, Community Options, and Isles. In addition to his undergraduate degree, he has a master’s in public administration from Florida State and is a certified executive coach.

His strategic consulting company is called the Empathic Institute, in keeping with his family’s tradition of helping others. “We focus on helping organizations as well as people understand the world from others’ points of view,” he says. “It is a very powerful word, and I chose it for a reason: to bring a different level of accountability and a different level of motivation to the nonprofit space.”

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