Recently, I have been surprised to see traditional strategic planning wisdom turned on its head. While many consultants advise avoiding strategic planning in the midst of executive leadership transition, Communitas Consulting was called to work with three new executives in exactly those situations this past year. In each case, a strategic plan was just what these leaders needed to engage the board and staff in a focused new course. There are several reasons why:

A good strategic plan takes a hard look at financial, demographic, industry, and sector trends; as well as potential competitors, and the organization’s capacity to lead and operate in the future. With this research underway in the first few months of the new executive’s tenure, he or she can more rapidly learn about the organization, its community, and environmental factors.

Boards can be cautiously optimistic with a new executive and, in the first months, all parties are informally sounding each other out and hoping for a good outcome. With a strategic plan, the staff and Board team get involved in planning an assessment, analyzing results, and deliberating in a relatively “safe” space. Sharpening an organization’s mission, vision, and goals together builds trust, opens up opportunities to air and address differences, and sparks innovation early on.

Stakeholder interviews generally add insight to a strategic planning process. When there is a recent executive transition, stakeholders are particularly at ease discussing past concerns and future hopes. The new executive and Board benefit from listening to and proactively responding to candid assessments of strengths and weaknesses prior to setting strategies.

To be sure, there are risks to engaging in strategic planning soon after an executive has been appointed: the executive may not have time to get to know his or her staff prior to the planning process, and therefore over or underestimate their capabilities. Additionally, a bold strategic plan may put unnecessary early pressure on the executive to bring about results prior to their full immersion in the financials and organizational capacity. Yet, if properly planned, the benefits are worth these risks.

Bottom line: Few busy public or private organizations have the stability to wait for a period when their leadership and staff members can sit back and craft a plan while putting other work aside. A leadership transition, surprisingly, can create a window for reflection as part of the work. Embarking on a strategic plan during a time of executive transition helps create clarity of purpose, motivates a staff and board, and unites the organization around a common future course.


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