Organization & Leadership Consulting

Succession Planning and the Organizational Life Cycle

organizational life cycle

The motion of a swinging pendulum can be fascinating to watch. If designed to do so, a swinging pendulum can create beautiful, symmetrical designs of calm and order. However, a swinging pendulum can also result in disarray and destruction. It depends on the degrees of awareness and intentionality in those who put the pendulum in motion, and what is within the reach of the pendulum itself. 

A leadership succession is like a pendulum. It involves movement and momentum. It affects the things within the reach of the transition. What is within that reach can be predetermined to a great extent, if the organization is intentional about doing so. It’s called planning and preparation. In this case, succession planning. In our framing of it, we call it Culture and Leadership Transition. More on that in an upcoming blog.

Poorly Processed Succession

First, a moment on how a poorly processed succession decision can cause disarray and destruction. We’ve seen it through lived-experience and through coming alongside clients who are either in the middle of cleaning up a mess or are painfully aware of the need to avoid one. More often than leaders or governing bodies want to admit, they’ve made a poor hiring or selection decision based on a reaction to something missing or overly pronounced in the behaviors of the previous leader.

That sort of thing usually happens when the focus is on the pendulum itself rather than the environment in which its swinging occurs. 

Organizational Life Cycle

Organizations are comprised of complex environments that need tending by intentional, aware leadership. One major factor that influences any set of environments is where the organization is in what is known as the Organizational Life Cycle. Some of the first published thoughts on this theory appeared as early as 1890. Dozens of researchers and thinkers since then have written about it and illustrated it through images over the decades. Generally, the stages of organizational life are universal, sequential, inevitable…and to various degrees, reset-able. They are:

  1. Birth
  2. Growth
  3. Maturity
  4. Decline
  5. Death or Renewal

Rather than go into detail here about what each stage includes or looks like, let’s summarize by acknowledging that each stage requires a different skill set, motivation, and type of energy. Some leaders are capable of adjusting to the realities of any given stage of organizational life. Others are so hard-wired for effectiveness at one or two stages that they are simply not good fits for the other stages. Some humbly recognize that reality, some do not, some deny it.

The challenge and responsibility of those overseeing a succession process includes the need for intentional awareness of internal and external environmental realities, a major factor within each area being the organization’s present and emerging stage of life and how well equipped it is to navigate it. Therefore, it is important to also know how to identify the stage-of-life type of leadership needed and how to go about identifying which person has the aptitude most well-suited for leveraging their talents and experiences into a skill-set for the stage at hand.

Life-stage leadership is a real thing. Successful succession integrates that reality.


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