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In this topic, we explore effective leadership succession planning. We look at ways you can build the capabilities of your future leaders and manage the transition between one generation and the next.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- How can you identify and support the next generation of strong leaders?
- Why is succession planning important for governance today?
- How are you preparing your young people for bigger roles in your governance later in life?
- What do your older members have to offer your younger members?
- Are there any processes (formal or informal) in place to ensure stability as the people in your group change?
Leadership succession planning
The comings and goings of leaders can have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness of a group’s governance. It is important to have agreed processes and rules in place for how new leaders are supported and selected.
Succession planning in leadership is about making sure you have experienced and well-trained leaders to guide your organisation, community or nation in the future. Leaders today need to mentor and develop leaders of tomorrow.
Succession planning can take many different forms, such as mentoring, strategies and programs, inductions, ceremonies, policies and rules, or targeted training. It also has strong cultural foundations for how it is done.
While groups will take different approaches to succession planning, it often involves ensuring young people are supported from an early age to learn about and be given opportunities to participate in governance events and leadership discussions.
The idea of leadership succession has been a foundational part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society for a long time. There have always been rules and processes for teaching the next generation of leaders by passing on the knowledge, practical skills and experience they need to progressively take on governing roles.
To meet contemporary governance challenges, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups need to be able to grow their own young talented leaders and give them real support and real roles.
These individuals have much to contribute. They add energy, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective.
“MWRC employs a permanent organisational mentor. She works across the whole organisation and is assisting all staff, primarily youth, in a variety of activities such as CV and letter writing etc. It is important that youth are confident with all demands of working life so as to build confidence and not feel disenfranchised due to not being able to complete certain office requirements. No staff member is made to feel like they cannot do or achieve something. The purpose of the mentor, along with the entire organisational ethos, is to promote self-worth and confidence to build empowerment over time. Staff are provided with training and mentoring so over time they feel ready to take on any leadership role.”
– Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre, Indigenous Governance Awards 2016, category A finalist.1Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 64.
Succession planning also has clear benefits for young people. It:
- develops self-confidence and other important leadership skills
- gives them a greater sense of purpose
- helps them gain important cultural knowledge from Elders or leaders
- supports a stronger connection to their community
- makes sure they have strong role models – and become strong role models in return.
“Make sure you have a succession plan in place and that young leaders can contribute their new ideas now, not later. Too often charismatic leaders have been amazingly successful, but when they retire or fail in their leadership bid, the community falls apart. Leaders build for the future by mentoring youth who will carry on their good work long into the future.”
– Neil Sterritt, The trials and legacies of Mabo and Delhamuukw: Converting rights into outcomes for Australian and Canadian First Nations Peoples.2Neil Sterritt, “The trials and legacies of Mabo and Delhamuukw: Converting rights into outcomes for Australian and Canadian First Nations Peoples,” (keynote presentation, Native Title Conference, Cairns, 2012), 40.
Winners and finalists of the 2022 Indigenous Governance Awards talk about the importance of developing the next generation of leaders and how succession planning takes place in their organisation.
The following 6 tips are adapted from an article by employment recruitment agency, Robert Half.3“What Is Succession Planning? 7 Steps to Success,” Robert Half Talent Solutions, updated 5 November, 2022, [link] We have adapted them to be more directly relevant to First Nations governance and leadership contexts. They may seem straightforward, but they take time and care to implement. Taking this time is important for the success of your group.
1. Think ahead and plan
Sometimes you know when a key leader in your organisation, community or nation might be intending to step down. At other times it might come unexpectedly. It helps if you’re ready for it and have a plan.
2. Pinpoint emerging candidates
Think about who might be suited to step into different leadership positions. Ask yourself:
- What are the future leadership needs of your organisation, community or nation? Are there any particular qualities that you think will be particularly important for a future leader in this role to possess
- Who would be best suited for different roles and responsibilities?
- Are there any skills they need support with before they step into a leadership role?
- Are there other leaders or Elders that you need to consult before promoting, mentoring or selecting candidates?
3. Let them know and explain the stages
It’s wise to let people know that you’ve chosen them for succession. Explain the circumstances and your reasons for choice. Make sure they understand that there are no guarantees.
4. Step up professional development efforts
Mentoring, training, job rotation and placements are all helpful. Developing knowledge, leadership, communication and interpersonal skills – both job-specific and cultural – with training and practice is also important.
5. Trial your succession plan
The opportunity for a candidate to step into the role for a short time may come up. For example, while their successor is on leave or travelling. The candidate can gain experience. You can assess where they may need additional training and development.
6. Think about your own successor
A time may come when you need a successor for your own role. Through effective succession planning, you can set your group up for stability and minimise the impact of the loss of leadership.
“In planning for the long-term sustainability of Waltja, Directors bring young women to the Directors meetings. This is important so that the young women learn about Waltja’s governance, can listen to the senior women and learn from them and in the future take up leadership roles themselves – succession planning. Also it is helping the young women to build their confidence to speak up about their ideas and the issues that concern them.”
– Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Governance Awards, category A winner, 2014.4Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Voice of Our Success: Sharing the Stories and Analysis from the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards (Sydney: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, 2016), 65.
Murdi Paaki young leader Isabelle Orcher talks about the organisation’s young leaders program and succession planning.
Build leadership capabilities in young people
Building capabilities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people helps them feel skilled and confident to take up leadership roles. Building capabilities is a continuous process.
“The young leaders project is just a project where we get youth around the Murdi Paaki region, bring them in and try to build up their confidence, self-esteem, able to speak in front of people, give them more skills and try and get them to become more out of their shells.”
– Isabelle Orcher, Murdi Paaki young leader, 2012 Indigenous Governance Awards
Young members will often have different levels of skills, experiences and confidence. This means they need regular access to a variety of governance training and long-term career development programs, including updates, orientations and inductions.
There are 3 areas of capability development central to governance for young leaders. These are:
- Opportunities for young people to be represented and participate in governance. This could be including them in decision-making, planning and on youth councils.
- Place-based work experience in organisations, communities or nations that focus on the practical aspects of governing.
- Governance training, education and mentoring.
Bring young people to negotiations, high-level meetings and conferences. Involve them in your strategic planning and decision-making. These are important ways to develop future leaders. Shadowing a leader should become a routine part of the work of senior leaders. It exposes the next generation to critical experiences. It builds their skills and the trust and recognition they need to lead.
Other ways to create a space for young people to thrive as leaders include:
- meetings that encourage equal participation between young and old
- a designated youth representative in your group or on the board
- collaborative strategic planning with young people.
“There is one elected position on our board for a youth representative, which (as well as ensuring that our board gains an insight into the views and experiences of young Aboriginal people in Central Australia) also provides an important opportunity for a young person to learn and develop their leadership skills.”
– Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2014.5Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 63.
It’s also important that older members are encouraged to create a space for young people to contribute.
“Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH) has a particularly strong workforce development program, which seeks to support the growth and development of future leaders in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health via a range of avenues. In particular, there are three main examples of how the IUIH is working to advance the development of young Indigenous leaders in our community, including:
- Identifying and actively promoting and supporting strategic undergraduate and post-graduate placements for medical, nursing, allied health, business, administrative and other trainees.
- Through the IUIH’s partnership arrangement with the University of Queensland, a leadership program was able to be run with the UQ Business School. The week-long Indigenous Future Leaders Program, which was part of UQ Business School’s Executive Education offering, was attended by fourteen participants with backgrounds ranging from medicine, social work, nursing and professional sport.
- Actively promoting and supporting opportunities for employment, training and career development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with an emphasis on using a structured traineeship and mentoring program that incorporates pastoral care and support to ensure a holistic and comprehensive approach to Indigenous young people’s personal and professional development.”
– IUIH, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2014.6Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Voice of Our Success: Sharing the Stories and Analysis from the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Sydney: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, 2016), 64.
Many groups may see succession planning as providing opportunities for young people. But the same strategies can be used to support others. This includes older people or anyone interested in taking on greater responsibility that could benefit from exposure and experience before taking on the role.
Applicants in the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards provide useful insights into the range of deliberate, planned strategies that organisations are using to support the leadership and capability development of young people.7Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Voice of Our Success: Sharing the Stories and Analysis from the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Sydney: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, 2016), 63. They are:
Among award applicants, mentoring is the most common activity to encourage future leaders to flourish. It’s a relationship between 2 people with the goal of professional and personal development. The ‘mentor’ is usually an experienced individual. They share knowledge, experience and advice with a less experienced person, or ‘mentee’.8“Mentoring: A Mutually Beneficial Partnership,” MindTools, accessed 2022, [link]
Mentoring can be both direct and indirect.
Direct mentoring is when a mentee and mentor have a formalised relationship. The mentor may work regularly with the mentee and provide clear advice, support and guidance.
Indirect mentoring (less formal) is a process of observation, modelling and collaboration. This can be just as fruitful in building confidence and creating opportunities for young people.
Mentoring programs match young people with senior staff, industry experts, prominent community members, First Nations leaders or Elders. Appointing young people in leadership positions, such as on youth committees or governing bodies, also presents mentoring opportunities.
Youth engagement initiatives
Applicants describe the following as common initiatives to engage young people:
- school engagement programs
- youth delegate forums
- appointment of youth engagement officers
- national youth networks
- local action agreements
- allocation of resources for school groups
- group visits from TAFE and/or university students and community
- youth conferences
Applicants suggest supporting young people to get formal training such as:
- tertiary education
- school-based apprenticeships
- work experience
- after-school programs
- entry-level positions
- trade apprenticeships – these double as a strategy to address industry skill shortages.
The Marruk Project was awarded First Place in Category B of the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards. Here Project Manager Angela Frost and Youth Leadership Group member Bayden Clayton discuss the central role of young people in guiding the project. The Youth Leadership Group empowers young people in the Swan Hill community.
“The Marruk Elders Advisory Council and project team have shared their skills with participants in targeted mentorships, to nurture community capacity and build real skills to enable the creation of ongoing arts and cultural work into the future.
Future leaders have been nurtured through the Youth Advisory Group structure. Participating young people were given the responsibility to work alongside the Elders Advisory Council to explore the contemporary context of the Dreamtime stories selected. This was a responsibility entrusted to the young people, and they accepted the responsibility with pride, to investigate how these stories could be opened up and shared in a way that was current and relevant to the young people of Swan Hill.
The governance structure allows for emerging leaders to be supported to have a voice and carry out important cultural responsibilities.”
– The Marruk Project, Indigenous Governance Awards, category B winner, 2014.1Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Voice of Our Success: Sharing the Stories and Analysis from the 2014 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Sydney: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, 2016), 64.
The transition between generations
Many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people complain about the chronic under-use of their talents and enthusiasm.
Some feel they get trapped in a vicious circle. They’re asked by senior people to ‘stand-up and take on some responsibility’. Then told to ‘stand down, we don’t need you yet. You’re pushing yourself in front too much’.
Luke Pearson, founder of IndigenousX, an Indigenous-owned and operated independent media consultancy and training organisation, describes his experience. He was initially supported as a ‘young leader’ and then found all the support dropped off.
“I was once tapped as a ‘young Indigenous leader’ and have been invited to various equivalent programs over the years to talk to the next generation of ‘young leaders’ and it has never really sat that well with me that the opportunities provided to our ‘young leaders’ don’t seem to continue very well after we turn 25. What is the point of focusing on recruitment if there is not a similar focus on retention and promotion?”9Luke Pearson, cited in Tess Ryan, “Deadly Women: An Analysis of Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Australia,” (PhD, University of Canberra, 2018), 296.
It takes time for young leaders to gain the experience and skills to do the job, and to be seen as having the authority to step into community leadership roles. When young leaders are supported in their leadership roles, it has positive impacts on them and their community.
The invitation and desire to serve must be supported by the capacity and confidence to do so. Succession planning is a long-term investment both in an individual and the wider community.
“As part of MDWg’s governing structure, the role of chairperson and vice chairperson are often divided between a senior and a younger person… the chair should receive support from a younger person but also for the younger person to learn and grow in taking on responsibility. This is reflected in the current arrangement [in which] the chairperson is more senior, and is supported by a younger individual who stepped up for this role for the first time at last year’s AGM.”
– Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre, Indigenous Governance Awards, 2014.10Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 63.
NPY Women’s Council Chair Yanyi Bandicha and Co-ordinator Andrea Mason on succession planning, and bringing younger women into the organisation.
Honour Elder leaders
It’s important to balance the need for leadership renewal with respect and recognition of Elder leaders.
The transition of leaders from one generation to the next needs to be done with sensitivity. When you lose a leader you lose important knowledge, experience and skills.
Young leaders stand on the shoulders of Elders.
In recognition of this and the enormous contribution that Elders and senior leaders make, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are designing ways to publicly honour them.
For example, IUIH honours Aunty Pamela Mam as the organisation’s ‘patron’. A patron is a person honoured as a special guardian, protector or supporter.11“Patron,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed 2022, [link]
Aunty Pam was the first graduated First Nations nurse from Palm Island and one of the founders of the first Aboriginal community controlled health services in Queensland. Aunty Pam provided an in-depth perspective to IUIH. She continues to influence its vision to provide quality health care and social support services to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of South East Queensland. IUIH honours the importance of Aunty Pam’s contribution, and the rich cultural wisdom and guidance she brought to the organisation and the board.12Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, Our People, Our Way: Stories of Indigenous Governance Success (AIGI, 2020), 17.
Before her passing early in 2020, Aunty Pam instructed IUIH staff that “nothing is to stop, everything must continue”.13“Our Patron,” Institute for Urban Indigenous Health, accessed 2022, [link] IUIH hold her teachings in the highest regard and honour her legacy in everything the organisation strives to achieve.
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