Succession is inevitable. Generals, Admirals, Presidents, Kings and Queens all face the time when they must step aside for the next generation of leaders who will take their places. As we look to our military and governments during these times of change, we hope for a level of continuity, for smooth transition that creates confidence for the population, and for the rest of the world.
Organizational leadership is no different.
Everyone can and does get replaced in their career. Sometimes we have a say in it, and other times we may not. Whether we choose to leave, are promoted within the organization on our terms, or are asked to leave, the outcome should be the same: There is someone better prepared and more talented than us to take the reins from us.
For some, this is not only a fearful idea, it can be an indignity: “How could I be replaced? I am the best at what I do!”
For others, it is an honor and a validation of effort placed into the growth of the team and the organization: “I am so proud we have the talent to continue to move forward without missing a beat.”
Being a selfless and humble leader takes courage and practice. It also requires a level of introspection and learning that is not without tough lessons and simple realities. As our current state of multi-generational work teams forge ahead, the gap in knowledge and talent is more defined than ever. While there is certainly no replacement for wisdom and experience, there is a reduced timeline in the accessibility to data. We live in a world where Google is the first source of information, Siri is conversational, YouTube shows us how, and bouncing an idea off a colleague is an exchange of text messages.
This immediate access to information has accelerated many of our learnings and opportunities, leapfrogging careers based on results delivery over seniority. The days of being the boss because you have been with the organization the longest or are the oldest on the team are far behind us.
Richard Branton, owner of Advanced Strategies, Inc., says, “To be a truly effective leader, it is necessary to develop a voluntary following.” Sure, plenty of employees will be on board just because you are the boss. However, in today’s workplace of shorter tenures and loyalties to individuals over companies, having a voluntary following is a requirement if you want to make your mark. No one goes to work wanting to do a bad job. We all want to make a difference and find relevance in what we do each day. As a leader, ensuring this is a true statement for your team is the most important role you have.
So what are the keys to succession planning, and how can you go about grooming a successor?
1. Have a deliberate succession plan and leadership pipeline.
A succession plan increases the availability of experienced and capable employees and prepares them for other opportunities. It also leaves you well prepared for expansion, competition, and loss. The best talent in your organization may be in roles where they don’t receive as much exposure to those making decisions about promotions and future opportunities. In fact, your organization may not put much thought into this at all, relying on tenure and recruitment as a primary method of filling key roles. Being deliberate about growing internal talent and rewarding the team members who exemplify your mission, vision, and values fosters both loyalty and engagement. In addition, it bridges generational gaps and allows the flexibility of meeting people where they are and where the want to be. Take the program seriously and your team will do the same.
2. Invest in executive development and training programs.
Your current team may not be as well prepared to take the step as you would prefer. In some cases, you may need to recruit for a role based on a specific skill set or dynamic you are looking to bring to the organization. For example, if you are a non-profit, looking to gain efficiencies in shared service practices, bringing in a leader from a for-profit environment can be the catalyst you require. Ideally, at least 80 percent of your promotions should come from within the organization. These should be based on qualifications and experience over mere tenure. To achieve this goal, a robust and defined program needs to be established and well-managed as a partnership between the executive team and HR. This permits the assessment of the current team’s ability and alignment with future needs and organizational goals. Above all, ensure people know it is a pathway, yet not a guarantee to the next promotion.
3. Strategically move people into new roles to expand learning.
A succession planning program is a two-way commitment between the employee and organization. It is key to communicate and share both the outcomes and the expectations with the organization. Team members who are actively engaged in this process will be open to the rigors of what is required to achieve advancement and the reward of a promotion and expanded responsibility. The best press for these programs is the testimonial from those experiencing the accomplishments. Promotions are not the only mechanism for this outcome. Strategically moving people into new roles, via a lateral move to a new department or through a job-swap with a colleague, can expand learning beyond the scope of a formal program.
One of the most effective examples of this I have experienced was the job-swap of a Director of Information Security and a Director of Technical Services. They were already actively on the same team, working together to achieve key strategic goals. Assuming the responsibility of each other’s deliverable catapulted their learning, effectiveness, and ability to comprehensively understand the needs of the organization. Today, they have both been internally promoted to roles with a more focused path to the top.
If you want to hold onto your best talent, look for it in unexpected areas, find those with a voluntary following, and cull from those already setting a positive example for others. Your reward is their success, and having a field populated with team members eager and capable of replacing you when you move on to your next role. Whether your next step is retirement, a promotion, or a lateral move to broaden your learning, having an active role and voice in the process is a rewarding experience. As a leader, the greatest fulfillment has come in watching my successors outperform me in a previous role. That is the intent in the first place. Your successor should be more prepared, better situated, and have been exposed to the learnings and pitfalls you traversed because you taught them the ropes! Leadership and succession planning are not a secret, they are a responsibility. Those with enough bravery and humility to honor this are building the dream teams of today and tomorrow, one successor at a time.