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The leadership secret every enduring organization knows

Every leader is an interim leader. 

William Vanderbloemen
William Vanderbloemen is the CEO of Vanderbloemen. |

I recently read the story about the transfer of leadership at United Airways from Oscar Munoz to Scott Kirby. United Airlines is an $8.2 billion brand, serving 61 countries and regions worldwide. In 2019 alone, United Airlines was the chosen airline for 162 million passengers. Their reach is great, and they have an established team of 96,000 employees to help forward their mission of providing top-notch service.

United Airlines had a succession plan, as most major corporations do. I first learned this early on when I began my career in pastoral and corporate executive searches. I realized that well-prepared corporations required the board of directors to speak of only one topic during their first official meeting with the new CEO, and this topic was succession. As awkward as it may be to begin thinking on your first day about who’s taking your position after you, it was a necessity for the board and the newly chosen CEO to wisely prepare for the unknown. 

In 2016, United Airlines’ then CEO, Oscar Munoz, experienced a heart attack one month after becoming CEO. The situation was so grave that he ultimately received a heart transplant. When such abrupt events take place, it makes us remember that none of us will be around forever. United Airlines realized the importance of having a successor to Munoz appointed in advance, and Scott Kirby was recruited by Munoz as United’s President and future CEO. 

After Munoz’s four-year tenure, Scott Kirby was scheduled to become the new CEO of United Airlines — a role he had prepared for years. Last month, Kirby officially embraced his new role, even as the global markets were turned upside down from the coronavirus pandemic. Because the airline industry was essentially turned off, United Airlines had its schedule cut by 90%. But the takeaway is this: because they prepared for succession, they guaranteed strong, experienced leadership for United, even in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.

Every organization faces crises, and crises almost by definition happen at the worst possible moment. That’s why every organization needs to have strong leadership in place at all times, not only for the everyday work, but also for those times that present unforeseen and unprecedented challenges. Every leader is an interim leader. Every organization that succeeds over the long haul has to get succession right because they need to get leadership right. In critical times, leadership becomes more critical still. Sometimes we don’t choose succession — succession chooses us. And if something were to happen to the CEO where he was forced to suddenly step down, the employees, customers, shareholders, and creditors of United deserve and demand excellent leadership. 

And so does your church. You need leadership — right now. And you must find the right leader, in the right way — right now. No matter what. 

Recently, two of America’s most influential churches, The Moody Church and Willow Creek Community Church, entrusted my company to help them find their senior pastors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I have always believed in the power of succession planning but witnessing two megachurches enact their succession plans during a pandemic, has only enforced this belief. And I have to admit, when COVID-19 hit, I got nervous that we wouldn’t be able to finish these searches until a long time after the pandemic passed, but my fears were relieved when both congregations rose to the occasion. Each church actively participated in succession planning, during a global pandemic, because longevity and the responsibility to maintain a legacy is crucially important to encouraging a successful, multi-generational church. Just as United Airlines didn’t let coronavirus impede their plans, neither did either church. 

How did these churches hire their senior pastors during a quarantine, you might ask? The Moody Church hired their new leadership on a Zoom call. Prior to coronavirus, we started their search, but they zeroed on their top candidate just as the effects of COVID-19 were taking hold of the United States. Although travel for the candidate to meet the board was taken out of the picture, Moody refused to pause the search and began to double down. Moody knew that successful pastoral succession was a key to ensured prosperity and they did not let coronavirus dictate their plans.

Similarly, Willow Creek Community Church persevered during COVID-19 to find their new senior pastor. For a long time, Willow was the largest church in North America and I must say, my knees knocked a little when we were first asked to help run the search. This would be the only senior pastor in the history of the congregation and the transition came on the heels of a very tender time for the church (separate and apart from COVID-19). At the time when the church selected their new pastor, quarantine and social distancing did not let the new pastor physically meet the new members. Instead, they innovated and their newly selected senior pastor met the congregation through Zoom, while delivering his very first sermon virtually.

I know you may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but we don’t have a leader in place, we’re facing unprecedented changes, and we don’t even know where to begin.” If that’s the case with your church, there’s a simple way to start. Vanderbloemen offers a free succession readiness tool that is available to help you start the process. And if you want a gameplan to hire your next leader, take a look at our recently updated and expanded book Next: Pastoral Succession That Works.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices, and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally. Follow him on Twitter @wvanderbloemen.

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