10 Things I’ve Learned About Succession

It has been 10 year since I made one of my best-ever leadership choices. In 2009, I implemented a succession plan for the organization I founded in 1986. It’s a plan that was 5 years in the making.  Very close to committing myself to follow Jesus, marrying my wife and starting Cape Christian, this decision has been in my top 5 all-time best.  Earlier this year, I wrote an extended version of these reflections on the last decade (if you remember them, skip to number 6)

1. Intentional Legacy-Leaving is Rewarding – Tom Mullins, author of Passing the Leadership Baton wrote, “A transition will be one of the greatest tests of your leadership, but it will also serve as one of the greatest rewards and testimonies of your legacy.”  Real. Truth 

2. Level-Five Leadership is the Pinnacle – Jim CollinsJohn Maxwell and others speak of the pyramid of leadership that peaks at level 5 where you serve others, empower those under you, give away leadership, hand credit to the team, take responsibility for failures and demonstrate deep humility.  I’ve diligently pursued the quest to climb to the top. Level 5 leadership is worth the climb.

3. Long-Term Success is Superior to Short-Term Wins – 20 years into starting and leading a church, I dreamed of building an organization that would outlive me.  I dreamed of a church that would go faster and farther after I was out of the driver’s seat than when I was in it. Now, 10 years and three successors beyond the plan implementation, I can actually attest to the fact that those first two decades of many small wins have been far surpassed by the long-term success of an organization that is now ready for the long-haul.  I am absolutely sure, if I died today, Cape Christian would continue to accelerate in its growth and impact for many more decades to come.  My dream is now reality.

4. The Mission is Bigger Than Me – I could have said and meant it early in my leadership journey.  But it’s different to finally and completely grasp it.  To start something and lead something that is much bigger than me, is incredible. There’s nothing more humbling and fulfilling.

5. My Fruit Tastes Better on the Trees of Others – I have always loved Bob Buford’s desire to have his “fruit to grow on other people’s trees.”  Seeing the results of leadership development and the establishment of a culture of an intentional mission and purpose doesn’t just look nice on the trees of others, it even tastes better.  I especially love the fruit of what I’ve planted when I see it coming off the trees of my successors and bringing nourishment and joy to thousands.  That is even more satisfying than when they used to feast on what I produced. 

And now, a few more months of reflections have added a second five to those first five:

6. Succession is Rare—I knew it but didn’t know it.  I had trouble finding good models before I developed a succession plan. But I thought I just wasn’t discovering them.  10 years later, I’m amazed at how many people have never ever heard of anyone doing what we’ve done, especially in a church setting.  When they hear the Cape Christian succession story, they often tell me they have never met anyone who has successfully done what we’ve done.

7. Succession is Misunderstood —The repeated assumption is that I retired early at 55 and turned over the organization to another leader. Peers, friends, acquaintances and even extended family have asked me, “How is retirement going?”  So many have difficulty grasping that I stayed on the team, but I no longer lead the team.  Or to put it in Jim Collins language, “I stayed on the bus, but I’m no longer in the driver’s seat.” Because it is so rare, I’m guessing people don’t have a slot in their brain to put a strategically developed and implemented leadership succession plan.  To me, that needs to change.

8. Succession is Challenging – If it was easy, more people would do it.  There’s no comfort in growth and no growth in comfort.  There are many challenges: ego, finances, clearly defined roles, comparison, potential conflicts, triangulation and more.  I say, “Pull up your big-boy pants and face the challenges.” Every persevering, maturing, and healthy leader should be able to navigate the tests that come.

9. Succession-Planning Takes Time – Many overwhelmed leaders think they can’t add one more thing to their schedule. It does take time.  It took me five years to put a plan in place.  Lots of reading, conversations, prayer, intensive internal reflection, and consultation with others was important.  Many leaders I know just won’t make it a priority of time and energy.  But as always, the best things in life take intentionality and effort. You can’t coast and climb to the top of the mountain.

10. Succession Takes the Wisdom of Others – Our succession plan at Cape Christian wouldn’t be the success story that it is without a lot of help from a lot of people.  Lloyd Reeb of Half-time coached, encouraged and inspired me.  My friend, Greg Kappas, listened to me and my successee as we processed the possibilities.  His feedback and connection to one leader in California who had done it was helpful.  My “Monday Morning” local pastor’s group that I’ve done life with for over 23 years gave invaluable wisdom.  Our church board engaged in the process with their counsel, adjusting our bylaws and risked the future of the church by moving into uncharted territory.  I learned from the leaders and books mentioned earlier in this blog.  My wife, Linda, gave incredible support during the planning and over the years since.  Don’t try it alone.  Outside perspectives are priceless.  

I believe this.  Forward-thinking leaders plan for both their future and for the future of the business, non-profit or church they lead.  

NOTE: If you need any assistance in planning, let me know and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction!  My email address is Dennis@SuccessfulSuccessions.comif you want to reach out.

Leadership Shelf-Life

When I go to visit my 86 year old mother in Oregon, I love to step into her pantry just off her kitchen. The shelves are always filled with lots of canned goods and all the stuff I don’t usually eat at home:  Double-Stuffed Oreo’s, Ranch-flavored Dorito Chips, Famous Amos Chocolate-Chip Cookies and much more. The grand and greatgrand kids love grandma’s pantry. But there is an inside secret that all the family knows. Always check the expiration date. And it’s the same with everything in her refrigerator. Check the “Sell by” or “Expiration” date. There’s a pretty good chance that a few of those appealing goodies I’m tempted to taste (because “I’m on vacation,”) may have passed its shelf-life. 

Carey Nieuwhof got my attention earlier this week with a blog, Why Most Leaders Have a Ten Year Run.”  Nieuwhof has a theory that we leaders usually have a shelf-life of about a decade before we need to reinvent ourselves or possibly move to a new role or a new location.  And if you don’t change, you or the organization you lead will pay a big price.  It’s an interesting theory that I think has lots of validity. As I reflect on my own 40 years of leadership experience, I can see the patterns of 7-10 year seasons.

For me, it was serving for seven years at the first church I pastored after seven years of preparation in college and seminary.  After that first seven years of pastoral ministry in Elmira, NY, I was ready to get on with what my wife and I sensed was our life calling—starting a church from the ground up. 

After moving 1500 miles south from New York to Florida, the next seven to ten years was all about laying the ground-work, launching, establishing and building the culture of Cape Christian.  We grew from a small church of 65 to a medium-sized church of 400 during that first ten years.  We transitioned from small-church thinking (congregational decision-making included business meetings to vote on budgets) to become a staff-led leadership team with board oversight. I reinvented my leadership style from being the facilitator of the congregation’s vision (which was what I was trained for in seminary) to becoming a bold visionary leader who led staff, board and congregation through influence and vision casting. 

The next ten-year segment of my ministry was characterized by understanding and respecting my own giftings and leaning into my strengths as a pastoral leader.  I became super intentional about growing and leveraging my entrepreneurial leadership style by wrapping up a 10 year project of purchasing 48 individual pieces of property and assembling them it into one 14 acre property so we could built our first multi-purpose worship facility and move out of renting the public schools for weekend worship.  I trained a team of lay pastors who led small groups and I let them do much of the pastoral care so I could be free to lead.  I reinvented myself and started being a leader of leaders.  I developed a leadership succession plan.  During this decade, we went from two to three worship services with an average weekend attendance that grew from 400 to 1,000. 

At the three-decade mark of my full pastoral leadership journey, I passed the leadership baton of my church plant on to a younger leader I had been mentoring for five years.  I executed the succession plan and changed my title from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor, with a new title of Lead Pastor for my successor.  Again, reinventing my own leadership style, I began leading from the second chair.  My long-term successes and influence helped to propel a young leader forward in his first role as a lead pastor.  The church grew from 1,000 to 2,000 over the next five years.  As of 2019, my fourth decade of leadership, there have been two more successors.  The church has not only survived those two leadership transitions but, continues to thrive with health and growth to five weekend worship services for and average of 3,000 in attendance. 

Church Life Cycle

As I reflect on Carey’s theory of the 10 year shelf-life of leaders and I study the findings of innovative church consultants like Tony Morgan, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had frequent nudges from God to be both courageous and intentional about making leadership shifts and transitions that have thrust the church I founded beyond the normal life-cycles of growth, peak, stagnation and decline. We’ve avoided the staleness and burnout of being past our expiration date.  We’ve continued to flourish, be fruitful and be relevant.  And I’ve personally never felt more alive and excited for the future. The best is yet to come!