A client of mine recently called me and, with a sigh of professional sadness, he said, “You know, Bob, I was a damn good manager, a value executive director; I helped the business grow and everyone told me so. But, I fell down with the job of leadership. When I left my last position, even though I helped to grow the business, like a house of cards, pieces of it collapsed after I left my last position. I couldn’t believe it. I worked so hard to sustain the growth of the business and the motivation of my former team. I don’t know what happened.”
This story can be re-told by many of us, at all levels of leadership. We leave and our institutional knowledge and skills leaves with us. More troubling is the fact that we also allow others to leave (because of termination, retirement, various forms of leave, illness or a myriad of other reasons) and they, too, take their knowledge, skills, insights and abilities with them; forcing our organizations to be in constant, but unnecessary, catch-up mode. It has been said that a great manager ensures movement and attainment of high levels of productivity, performance, project goal achievement and client service; but a truly great leader accomplishes all of the aforementioned objectives while also maintaining the motivation of others, inspiring others, building the capacity of others and of the organizational systems and infrastructure, visioning the future, and developing plans to achieve all visions and goals. Wow! That’s a lot to ask….or is it?
One of the 4 core dimensions of leadership1 is the ability to become a Strategic Leader, one who is able to engage in, and facilitate, planning of all kinds, at all levels (e.g., succession planning, change management planning, strategic planning, project and program planning, individual development planning, etc.). This ability is one of the skills that separate good managers from great leaders. Succession planning is a key strategic leadership skill set.
Succession planning incorporates both skills and strategies in order to create and sustain processes by which an organization ensures its ability to retain institutional knowledge and skills, as well as prepare organizational stakeholders (e.g., employees, supervisors, peers, etc.) to know and be able to assume, the responsibilities of other positions during times of transition (e.g., retirement of someone, someone taking extended leave, someone resigning or being terminated unexpectedly, etc.). Without quality processes and practices in place a team or organization is left to struggle, strain and fill the gaps when someone leaves a position temporarily or permanently. Succession planning is not a static process. It is not something that one puts on paper and sets aside for some future transitional need. It is an ongoing process, set of procedures, peer and/or leadership practices, and documented plans…all put together and acted upon with regularity.
If you’re a supervisory manager or a leader who has never engaged in succession planning, and wonders ‘where to start’, here are a few simple things that you can do.
- Invite your team to identify 3-absolute priorities for their position (those that anyone would have to really focus upon if they were to assume a particular position for a short/transition period). Also ask each person to clearly articulate 3-skill sets (not simply “customer contact” but rather “customer contact that focuses upon situation/problem assessment, ensuring that the customer realizes that this position will absolutely meet their needs, etc.). Finally, have them identify 3-sets of knowledge that are absolute requirements for anyone who strives to be competent in fulfilling their position requirements.
- Then, catalogue this info (sharing it with all team members); and over a year’s period you can choose to have them engage in either peer mentoring, job shadowing, cross-training at team meetings, etc. This will build the capacity of your team members to be competent and confident in their ability to step into other positions or successfully on-board a new team member during times of transition.
- You may also wish to document the same items for your own position as a manager or leader, then transform the documentation, using it as a tool for delegation, mentoring of staff, and training so that, over time, the team members are building leadership capacity.
These initiatives will offer your team a spring-board into succession planning. These action steps only ready your team members for actual succession planning, which includes a more complete documentation of job/position action items, development a positional back-up matrix and plan, job shadowing opportunities and other helpful practices. Having said this, the steps outlined above when acted upon will help you begin to shift team thought paradigms and team-cultural norms so that everyone is thinking of the future, planning for transitions which are certain to occur, and considering their legacy, and seeing themselves in true peer-support roles.