“To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” With this advice, Sir Winston Churchill described the necessity of embracing change in governing and leading. While change in private clubs is constant, succession planning is often overlooked for more pleasant sorts of change. This is because succession planning implies unwanted or unexpected change.
As a matter of good governance practice, club boards should adopt a comprehensive policy for what happens when the general manager (GM) leaves, dies or is incapacitated. Each board’s policy will differ. The best time to discuss and draft that policy is when there is no urgency and the board can benefit from the perspective, understanding and good judgement of the GM.
And once you have the policy, keep it current to reflect changes that arise. The twelve questions below are designed to guide what you want to include in your policy.
Board Focus – The board is duty-bound to ensure that the club is protected.
Do we have a strategy for developing GM successors within the organization?
What is our agreement with the GM concerning requirements for advance notice for a voluntary retirement?
Who should be Acting GM when the GM is away from the office for lengthy travel or illness? Who should immediately assume GM duties if the GM dies suddenly?
Is our situation such that an Interim GM should be appointed before a search is begun for a permanent GM?
Assuming plenty of time for the next GM search, who should be on the search committee? How will they be selected? Do we favor using a search firm? What tentative budget should be anticipated? Should the search committee recommend one or more than one candidate to the board? Can the Acting or Interim GM be a candidate during the search for a permanent GM?
If the GM dies suddenly, what process should be followed to find a successor while the Acting GM is leading?
Who determines when a physical or mental disability is such that the board should appoint an Acting GM? How will that be done?
What benefits do we provide to the surviving spouse if the GM dies while in office?
Do we have a policy of incentives to keep the GM and other key leaders?
What is our severance policy should the board terminate the GM?
What insurance should we have on the GM to help cover the costs of interim leadership, a search, or benefits to the family should the GM die?
Do we want to plan to allow the successor GM to serve some time as part of the transition? If possible, transitional management can be highly effective for the incoming GM to call upon the institutional knowledge of the predecessor.
GM Focus – The existing GM is an invaluable resource to guide the board in understanding how his or her job duties are prioritized, executed and measured. Each GM should be asked to participate in the succession planning process and his or her inputs should be carefully integrated into the eventual plan.
The GM should provide guidance on matters of interim management and leadership, existing documentation of mutual understandings and contracts.
Third-Party Guidance – Legal and accounting assistance should be called upon to address such matters that the board must address to ensure that the club acts within its legal and ethical limits. Accountants should provide guidance concerning the booking of costs and benefits to ensure accuracy and alignment with tax filings. Insurance providers serve as a great resource for confirming established—and lacking—coverage areas to ensure that nothing is missed in the transition.
Change is a good thing although often unwelcome. Boards are responsible to plan and manage as much change as the club requires. Forward planning is a primary means of minimizing transitional risk.
For further reading, see the NCA Board Leadership Institute’s white paper, “Chief Executive Succession Planning for Private Clubs” at nationalclub.org/clubgovstandards.