Break glass in case of emergency

Leaders, let’s first plan for an emergency

Good succession planning starts with what to do if a leader needs to take a temporary absence

Software developers and technologists often ask about a project’s “bus factor” or “bus quotient”: What is the minimum number of team members who, if hit by a bus, would halt or put that project in jeopardy? A low bus factor is bad, and a higher one is good. (Personally, I prefer the less-morbid and more-positive “lottery factor,” but it doesn’t quite have the same ring.)

What you don’t want is a bus factor of one, i.e., one person who has the keys, both literal and figurative, to essential processes for a team or an organization. But in many digital nonprofit and for-profit news organizations, the risk of having a perilously low bus factor is high. And it doesn’t take a bus accident or victory in the lottery to reveal this risk. As the pandemic has shown us, a temporary personal or family illness for one member of a team can be extremely disruptive if that person alone holds vital information.

Often, the critical knowledge in digital news organizations, especially smaller ones, is embodied in a leadership position, like the executive director or CEO. In a recent conversation with several digital news executives about succession planning, one person referenced the bus factor concept by saying that his succession plan is avoiding dangerous situations, like walking anywhere near a bus. That response elicited a hearty and knowing chuckle from the group. But it illuminated an important point about succession planning — it’s hard to have a long-term leadership transition plan, when you don’t even have one for an emergency.

The first stage of succession planning

501 Commons, an organization based in the Pacific Northwest that provides consulting to nonprofits, categorizes five stages of leadership transition, with “planning for an unplanned or emergency succession” as the first stage. Unplanned, sudden leadership changes can be temporary for short or long periods of time or they can become permanent. Either way, they require a clear plan with steps to take once the disruption occurs.

The work of nonprofit leadership, research and consulting firms such as 501 Commons, Board Source and Clarity Transitions has provided inspiration for the way I’m thinking about succession planning for news and is helping to shape the guide I am producing. It’s important to emphasize that succession planning is an area where journalism can learn a lot from other sectors, particularly nonprofits, which are also mission-driven enterprises.

In an engagement on succession planning with the Word in Black collaborative of 10 of the nation’s leading Black publishers, the National Trust for Local News explained emergency succession this way:

Emergency succession planning is a risk-management tool that any publisher can put in place any time. It establishes the essential steps for an expedited transfer of leadership within an organization or business in the case of an unexpected event. This can take the shape of a simple checklist, with items such as back-up access to critical information, clarity about legal documents, and a decision about who steps into leadership in case of emergency.

These two tasks — creating a checklist and deciding who is next in line if there is an emergency — require documentation, communication and transparency. Let’s take a look at each of them separately.

Creating a checklist of critical information

Who doesn’t love a good checklist? It helps create order and clarity and has been shown to be effective in making complex and urgent situations (even in fields like medicine) simpler and less prone to failure. By its nature, an emergency succession would take place not on anyone’s predetermined schedule, and the stress involved underscores the need for both pre-planning but also clear directions for the most critical steps to take.

News organizations should consider the following critical areas when putting together their checklists. (Thanks to this piece from Clarity Transitions that was published in Blue Avocado for suggesting many of these categories.) For each area, document where the information lives, who has access to it and what passwords (or contact information) are required to access it.

  • Personnel
    • What are the things you need in order to continue supporting and paying staff and vendors/contractors during this time?
  • Finance
    • What do you need access to in order to keep the operation going? 
    • Don’t forget critical basics like access to bank accounts or budgets.
  • Fundraising
    • What commitments have you already made to funders and how can you ensure that the work will continue? 
    • What grants are you in the process of applying for or needing to submit reports for?
  • Communications
    • What internal communication channels should you have access to (CEO/ED email and calendar, for example)? 
    • What external communication channels do you need access to (social media, publishing, etc.)?
  • Information Technology
    • How do you ensure that key IT infrastructure (web and email hosting, network administration and cloud storage) will continue?
  • Facilities
    • For those with physical offices, what do you need to ensure that building management, maintenance and other services will continue?

Once an organization has a checklist, maintaining it and updating it periodically is important. These kinds of documents can easily become out of date, especially if staff leave or the organization takes on new grant funding or roles shift. 

At a minimum, think of these documents as you would your smoke detectors: try to “change the batteries” in them about once every six months. Don’t wait until an emergency to realize they have become obsolete. 

Making decisions about who is next in line

The operating and governing structure of an organization will determine the way that an acting successor can be chosen. In nonprofit news organizations, this role is much clearer: nonprofits have boards of directors that serve as the governing bodies and are usually the entities to which an executive director or CEO reports, so they are the group that determines the way they would decide the acting successor. (In some nonprofits, depending on their bylaws, this role may be the exclusive purpose of an executive committee, as well.)

In for-profit businesses, things can be a little murkier. The responsible party could be any number of people: a business partner, investor(s), family members or the CEO themself. If it is the latter, then an emergency plan for who to put into place in an unplanned absence is even more important, because the CEO may be incapacitated or not in a position to name a person once the need for the absence is clear.

Once the governing body is clear, that person or people need to decide who would be the acting chief in the event of an emergency. In many cases, an internal leader — perhaps a deputy to the CEO/executive director or another member of the executive team whose experience would give them the best opportunity for success — would be the choice. Sometimes, depending on the size of an organization or other factors, two people may share the acting role. And in nonprofit organizations, sometimes a board member will be designated for this role. Whoever it is, it’s important to put the choice into writing and to make sure that the person is aware of the responsibilities they would take on in an emergency situation.

Governing bodies also need to consider the following

  • Who will oversee the acting leader?
  • How will the acting leader be compensated?
  • What authority will the acting leader have, for example, in:
    • Hiring/firing staff
    • Making decisions about taking on new programs/clients
    • Spending over certain amounts
    • Signing contracts for new business or grants
  • What is the communication plan and responsibility for notifying key stakeholders about the temporary leadership change? That includes:
    • Board members
    • Staff
    • Investors or funders
    • Partners or clients
    • Members
    • Your audience and community: readers, listeners

Above all, clarity and thoroughness in documentation are key. The reason for a leader’s unplanned absence may be a surprise, but the specifics of the emergency plan you put in place shouldn’t be. Key stakeholders should have access to the plan once it’s finished — better yet, they should be engaged in the process of creating it, to the extent that it makes sense for their roles. If anything, the mere existence of the emergency plan should give some comfort to board members, staff, partners and others that you are ready if an emergency happens.

As the final product from this fellowship, I will create templates as part of an emergency succession checklist for news organizations. If you’d like to help test my beta version of this emergency checklist, please let me know. I’m hoping to work with three or four organizations, including both nonprofit and for-profit digital news operations.

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