Doing the Tough Work of Succession Planning

Photo credit: Daniela Hernandez

Many arts and culture leaders work very hard and are focused on day-to-day operations. But what happens if a key leader chooses to leave the organization? How can you ensure that the organization will continue to fulfill its mission and thrive? How do you assure funders or your board members that your organization is sustainable?

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of facilitating a 3-day succession planning workshop with Viver Brasil, a Los Angeles-based dance company now celebrating 22 years of operation. The workshop was initiated by the dance company’s Executive Director Natalie Marrero, who has yet to hit 30 years of age. She secured funding from the Performing Arts Readiness (PAR) Project, which gets its funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, specifically for this workshop, convinced that having the difficult conversations about who will fulfill key roles in the event of change or transitions was essential for the organization’s health.

PAR makes available grants to performing arts organizations for the creation of individual institutional emergency preparedness or Continuity of Operations (CoOP) plans. It developed this program to not only acknowledge that lack of time, capacity, and expertise are major barriers to emergency preparedness planning for most performing arts organizations, but also to help facilitate the process and foster sustainability.

During our 3-day session, we discussed the tough questions related to management and governance: How will the organization continue to function in the event of leadership changes? What is the Board’s responsibility? How do you maintain vision and commitment to the mission while developing or transitioning new leadership? We also discussed key areas that require focus during change: Marketing, Operations, Information Management and Technology, Finance and Legal Affairs.

And we talked about artistic vision and programming: How will the company’s culture and artistic vision be protected, and its cultural legacy expand to new levels? How do we prepare the co-founders of the organization for transition—professionally and personally? What role will they continue to have with the company? Are there internal candidates who could be groomed now, or is there someone else in the field who might be able to offer a unique and important perspective? What role will the founding co-artistic directors continue to have with the company?

These were tough questions to think about and the conversations were hard. But the room was filled with respect; mutual love of the culture, and the collective desire to see Viver Brasil continue to grow and thrive. I commend Natalie, the co-artistic directors Linda Yudin, and Luiz Badaró, and board chair Angela Gulliver for their total investment and engagement in this succession planning process. I know it was particularly challenging for Linda and Luiz to discuss the future of “their baby” without their leadership. But this session also opened the way to discuss new possibilities, other roles and projects to which their expertise could be applied. And it helped them both have confidence that the company, to which they breathed life, would be fine.

The company’s dancers also were invited to share their insights. It allowed them to see the value of being a stakeholder in the company’s future. It was a holistic approach that Natalie crafted based on her commitment to ensure that Viver Brasil will be protected and sustained, regardless of who is at the helm.

I’m writing about succession planning because as hard as we are all working to achieve our goal of creating access to the arts, we also must ensure the stability and sustainability of our organizations. Are you or your organization prepared? If not, it’s time to act and begin your succession planning now. This effort also aligns with the importance of mentorship programs, which I often write about. Making these two components the centerpiece of how your arts organization or cultural institution does business will help assure that your work and your organization’s cultural legacy will continue well into the next century.