I find it interesting is that most companies do one of two extremes when it comes to succession planning:
1. Nothing at all; and/or 2. A very cumbersome process with lots of documents and checkpoints for multiple candidates which never amounts to anything.
Let’s find something in the middle …
Get someone ready
Think about succession planning in its core form: How do you get someone (specific), ready to take your (specific) job?
Every manager should be thinking about this.
The benefits are numerous. If you do this as a leader you score many wins:
- The whole organization gets more capable
- You have a real and meaningful way of motivating your top performers
- Other people see you delegating some power, so they trust you more
- You get to hand off some hard work that you don’t have to do personally!
Succession planning is all about delegating. As a leader, you need to make sure you have someone on your team that can step up. The only way to do that is give them a chance to learn and practice by delegating big, hairy, strategic stuff, not just superficial, well contained, safe stuff.
They need to learn your job — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Step 1. Let them practice your work – The first part of someone learning your job, is about the work. You need to give them opportunities to practice working at your level.
A lot of times we think the way to motivate our top performers is to have them work on the most fun or interesting projects. That works to a point, but it does not do anything to help get someone ready for your job.
Face it, how much fun work do you get to do?
You need to give them opportunities to practice the ugly, mind-numbing, heavily matrixed, controversial, boring, unsupported, failing, no-win kind of work you deal with every day when you walk through the door.
What is the hardest and most distasteful thing you do? That’s what you give your top performer. You give them the benefit of seeing what it is really like in your shoes.
They get to suffer like you do. But they also get to work on big stuff. They get access to your network and stakeholders. They have the chance to do something creative and heroic.
What may be drudgery for you, can be very motivating for someone who gets to step up. Okay, you should probably give them a more pleasant task too, while you are at it … but don’t shy away from giving smart people hard work.
And don’t feel guilty about it. I often did, but then I realized this was better for everybody, and that people appreciate it, not resent it, so I got over it.
Step 2. Let them practice your relationships – The next part of getting someone ready for your job is to make sure they are practiced and comfortable with the social requirements at the next level.
If they are stepping up, they need to fit in socially, too.
They need to be someone that your peers want to include personally. They can’t stand out like a sore thumb as the junior person in the room, who has no basis for relating to the big execs.
You need to give your top performer a chance to practice at these relationships. Give them opportunities to present for you. Arrange one-one meetings with them and your peers. Send them as your delegate to your boss’s staff meeting when you are out of town. (Make a reason to go out of town if this never happens.)
If your succession candidate does not develop personal relationships with your boss and peers they will never be ready to step into your job. And it won’t matter because they will not be given the chance.
Unless your candidate is viewed by your boss and peers as someone socially worthy of the role, they won’t get it; your succession planning will fail; and either you will be stuck, or the company will go outside to fill your role when the time comes.
Step 3. Let them practice your decisions – Okay, here is where the rubber meets the road. You need to give someone a chance to practice making the decisions that you make.
If you never delegate important decisions you are fooling yourself that you are doing succession planning. How will somebody ever be ready to take over, if you have owned all the decisions along the way?
Will you delegate important decisions?
Think about the next few months of decisions you need to make. Investments, priorities, partnerships, road maps, marketing strategies … give your top performer the task of owning the project AND the making decisions.
Let them feel the pressure of owning the outcome fully. Let them get the experience explaining, defending, and selling their choices. Let them get the experience fixing it if it goes wrong.
Is this scary? Yes. Might they choose wrong? Yes. Might they choose better than you? Yes (which can be scary, too).
The point is, if you never let them take ownership and make key decisions, you are cutting off the single most important training you can give your successor.
Patty is an executive, author, speaker, and the CEO of Azzarello Group, a unique services organization that helps companies execute their strategy and develop their leaders. You can find her on twitter @pattyazzarello.