Almost four years ago, in a pub in Amsterdam, I had a chat with Udan Fernando and asked him what his plans were for coming back to Sri Lanka. I had picked him as the next Executive Director of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a position I had held for 10 years when I resigned in March 2015. Time will vindicate both my choice of a successor and the process of ensuring continuity in leadership, but my thoughts in this blog are about the concept of planning succession, and the difficulty that people have in understanding the idea.
I am 62 years old, and please note that I have not retired. Many of my friends who are around the same age have, but I have never really had any intention of retiring. As I told a young man who was trying to sell me a private pension scheme when I was working in London, I intend to drop dead, not drop working. My decision to resign my position at CEPA was not caused by personal factors – I was not ‘tired of a 9-5 routine’ mostly because it was never nine to five and never routine; I felt no loss of cognitive capability: I had always been a scatterbrain so am not much more forgetful in my 60s than I was in my teens, my ability to maintain focus is possibly still greater than that of younger colleagues who grew up with sound bytes, smart phones and a constant need for changing stimulii, and there have not been many complaints about my problem solving capability probably because my management style has been to delegate problem solving down the line; I am also not ‘tired of working for someone’ because from age 30, I have been the de facto boss! The decision to leave was also not institutional in the sense that CEPA’s Board of Directors had amended the articles of association so that I would have been allowed, at their discretion, to be employed well beyond the originally stipulated retirement age. So what was the motivation for handing over the reins?
The main motivation was a display of good practice. This really sounds terribly goody-two shoes. But I have long been a critique of the dynastic nature of Sri Lankan (maybe even South Asian) civil society organizations. To quote the old Fox, as they used to call President J R Jayewardene “මට ඔටුනු පලදන්න කුමර කුමරියෝ නැත” (I have no heirs!) but even had I had sons and daughters, I would certainly not have encouraged them to take over CEPA’s leadership. And anyway, I would have done this leaving thing even if I was not 62 years old. Organisations (like countries) need to change their leaders so that they are infused with fresh thinking, a different kind of energy, and a fresh set of partners, supporters and friends. At the same, I have seen new CEOs arrive and with their new brooms and sweep away everything that the previous executive has taken years to build to start again from scratch, which I do not believe is beneficial to the organization either (We have also experienced a political history of changing ruling parties every five years, which was great for democracy and citizen power, but not so great for the economy or for development!) Hence the process of recruiting a successor who had two plus years of getting to know the organization and the organization him; entrusting in him the task of developing CEPA’s new strategy and applying for the next tranche of core funding; and developing in him an understanding for picking and choosing what needed change and what was going well, and the ability to assess the consequences of change from a position of insider knowledge. I am confident that this will pay off for CEPA.
The reactions to my leaving CEPA are interesting. I don’t think anyone thinks I have been sacked. My father had he been alive would have been disapproving about ‘leaving one job before securing another’. I haven’t as yet visibly attached myself to another organization, so basically the natural conclusion given my advanced years is of course, retirement. But when I refute that, and give the explanation I have given above, there is this sense of discomfiture. I saw this with some peer Executive Directors of think tanks, who must, I guess start wondering whether they should follow suit. To leave or not leave – the timing of that decision depends on the Executive Director, on the organization, and the context in which the organization operates. But developing a succession plan, even long term, should I think be part of any organisation’s strategic planning – after all it’s all too possible to be a victim of a freak accident where the decision to leave or not to leave could be brutally taken out of your hands!