One aspect of leadership that’s often overlooked is succession planning—the process of providing for future leadership in an organization. Few of us bother to think about what will happen after we’ve exited the scene, and frankly, many leaders don’t care. But succession planning is crucial to any organization’s long-term success. Some companies that have been around for centuries, such as Lowenbrau and the Hudson’s Bay Company, have excellent succession planning traditions in place, which is in no small part a reason they have lasted for so many generations.
As practiced in the modern business arena, this process essentially boils down to “buy or build.” Either you hire proven leadership from outside as needed, or you cultivate new leadership from within. The second option provides greater productive advantages than the first, although identifying and grooming emerging leaders does require considerable effort. Ideally, the sequence begins with hiring only high-potential candidates, so you have a great field of contenders to choose from. They require further assessment later on, once they’ve had enough time to establish themselves and make their talents known.
Intuition plays a part here, but otherwise such evaluation requires a standardized measurement system applied as evenhandedly as possible. If the task falls to you and no such system already exists, do your due diligence, adopt a scale based on common criteria for accomplishment and behavior, and codify it with simple, straightforward documentation. I won’t try to dictate what your company’s standards should be, as no universal standard can exist for all enterprises. Just keep the criteria consistent with your organization’s needs and core values.
Assessing a leadership candidate requires validation of their performance and value with a wide range of stakeholders: peers, partners, supervisors, even end-users. As a leader, ask yourself: does this person inspire trust and confidence in the people he or she works with and serves? Notable strengths of emerging leaders include:
- People skills
- Delegation skills
- Decision-making ability
- Forward-thinking ability
- A solid understanding of the big picture
- A reputation for delivering strong results
- Influence with peers
- A history of initiative and engagement
- The ability to motivate others
- Competencies specific to the position
A potential leader may not possess all these characteristics, but they do need to possess most of them; and if they lack teachability—an obvious willingness and ability to learn—then either find an efficient way to develop the trait in them, or strike them from your list. The ideal proto-leader must be moldable, so you can help them achieve their potential and fit into the leadership role you foresee for them. Take care not to constrain them too far, though; as I’ve noted above, they’ll need some flexibility, if only to help them deal with the dynamic business environment.
A word of caution here: don’t confuse high-performing individuals with high-potential individuals. Yes, high performers consistently offer a high return on investment; but as valuable as they are, they don’t always represent leadership timber. True high-potential workers contribute not just to the bottom line but to the whole organization. They exercise initiative, assume greater responsibility with minimal or no prodding, respond well to training, understand and embrace organizational values, and think strategically in the long term.
Too often, succession planning receives consideration only when the need arises—though by then, the opportunity to make a reasoned decision has often passed. As a result, transition proves shaky at best. But in this fast-paced world, any organization that experiences a leadership crisis, no matter how brief, risks going the way of the dinosaur. Darwinian factors apply to business as well as biology, where the chief rule is “adapt or die.” Smart organizations:
- Create a succession plan for every leadership position.
- Hire for talent and ability, not just to fill a need.
- Implement training opportunities that help emerging leaders hone their abilities.
Effective succession planning requires a clear eye, a delicate hand, and a willingness to act in whatever way best balances integrity with organizational needs. So: have you given enough thought to what will happen in your organization as time passes and leadership changes?