As any good basketball player knows, the key to a successful pivot is planting one foot on the floor while shifting position with the other. When a player stops dribbling, s/he often needs to pivot in order to take a shot or make a pass. If the player moves that pivot foot, it’s a violation known as traveling, and it results in a turnover. What has happened is:  The player has stopped dribbling without having a plan for what to do next, and that’s bad for the player and bad for the team.

Why all this basketball talk? A December 2016 article in the Harvard Business Review The Secrets of Great CEO Selection by Ram Charan, a business consultant, speaker and writer, discusses how important it is for an organization’s Board to define the pivot prior to screening candidates for a leadership position. In other words, the Board needs to come to consensus before they undertake an executive search, regarding the capabilities they require in a new leader who will take the organization where it wants it to go.  Identifying necessary capabilities in a potential new leader requires a collectively held understanding of an organization’s mission, current status and future goals.

At this point, my brain is tingling because this sounds very much like a call for strategic planning – often under-utilized in today’s nonprofit world.  We believe that a strategic plan, when developed with a keen desire to reflect an organization’s essential purpose and greatest potential, captures the power of a unified Board and staff, plotting out a path for success.

Not only that, a strategic plan plays a key role for organizations experiencing leadership transition—whether planned or unplanned. All of the succession planning in the world won’t help an organization that doesn’t know what it is and where it wants to go.

We at Schultz & Williams have been working with the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA) since 2015, as they engaged in a planning process to develop a strategic roadmap and a management action plan. Near the end of the planning process, SRHA’s executive director left for a new opportunity, and the organization then began the search for a new leader. As executors of the search process for SRHA, our work benefited from SRHA’s foresight in having prepared a dynamic strategic plan that reflected the organization’s mission, vision and values. The plan established where they were and their priorities for the future. Their mission was clear and their commitment to it had been nurtured and enlivened through the planning process. They were in a prime position to pivot confidently with the selection of a new leader, as the Board felt a sense of comfort and clarity that overcame any unsettling feeling that a transition naturally brings.

Our strategic plan provided us with a strong advantage going into an executive search. We were able to attract a high caliber of candidates who all spoke highly of the benefits of knowing our goals at the time of applying for the position, and the Search Committee was able to zero in on exactly the key attributes we will need in a successful candidate in order to achieve our plan over the foreseeable future. – SRHA Board Chair Wendi Wheeler

Without a strategic plan and a pivot, an organization runs the risk of bringing in a new leader who may be full of excitement and passion but who is out of step with the Board’s vision. And we would call a foul on that.