Succession Planning for Every Museum Professional

Discussion of succession planning in museums most frequently occurs when Boards consider the imminent retirement of a long-term CEO or prepare for an expected transition in Board leadership.  However, a more comprehensive view of succession planning is for it to be an inherent responsibility of every museum professional.

Why Every Museum Professional Should Plan for Succession:  Whether it is caused by a planned retirement, a dream offer from another employer, sudden relocation for the benefit of another family member, long-term leave to deal with an unexpected accident or illness, or one of several other possibilities – every museum professional is eventually going to leave their current position.  As such departures cannot always be anticipated well in advance, the continued fulfillment of the mission of the museum is best served if there is succession planning for each professional position to help insure a smooth transition in the performance of that position’s duties.

The Role of “Procedures Manuals” in Succession Planning:  One effective approach to comprehensive succession planning is for each museum professional to be responsible for drafting and updating a “Procedures Manual” for their position.  While incorporating the broad description of duties found in each position’s “Job Description,” such a manual needs to dive deeper into the position’s duties by fleshing out operational details of how those responsibilities are currently fulfilled.

A useful place to start is to ask yourself what you would need to know if you were someone new stepping into your job tomorrow.  While it will be impossible for you to document everything you know and do in the performance of your job, you need to include both a comprehensive overview of your duties, as well as sufficient operational details that a successor will know enough to carry on with your work.  Typically this will include an annual calendar of when certain duties need to be performed, an outline of the individual steps required for each critical task performed on a regular basis, and, perhaps most importantly, where relevant operational records – both digital and hard copy – can be found.

Regular Review and Updating of your Manual:  Once you’ve completed an initial draft of your Procedures Manual, you’ll need to keep in mind that it should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis.  If your museum has an annual performance evaluation process for museum staff, I recommend that you review and update your Procedures Manual in association with this process.  Whether you are thinking about your duties and performance over the past year in order to complete an employee self-evaluation form or to come up with points to raise with your supervisor about why you should receive a promotion for the increased responsibilities you’ve assumed, this reflection is helpful in identifying any changes in duties or procedures that should be incorporated into an updated Manual.

Your direct supervisor or CEO would be wise to require the drafting and maintenance of a Procedures Manual as part of your job responsibilities.  However, even if this isn’t the case, you might consider doing so anyway as a demonstration of your professionalism and commitment to your institution by helping to ensure the continuation of your important duties if and when you are no longer able to do so in person.


John E. Coraor, Ph.D.
Cultural Management Partners LLC