I have worked in retail and food and professional services since I was a young boy. I began the work when I was ten years old as an extension of personnel in a family franchise business. As I continued in the work force, I worked at other franchises, national retailers, local and regional professional engineering firms, and finally at a global leader in the professional Quality, Health, Safety and Environmental (QHSE) business. It didn’t seem to matter how big and sophisticated ;or how small and rudimentary the businesses were, they always seemed to struggle with succession planning.
Succession planning lays out the steps needed for team members to grow within the organization. This growth is aligned with the goals of the company and ultimately provides benefits to both the individual and the organization. It is important to note that for the purposes of this discussion, this planning is not simply focused on the advancement of the owner out of the business either through retirement or sale. This discussion focuses on the continual growth of individuals to fulfill progressively larger or substantially different roles within the organization in a effort to have the company realize its vision.
Within my experience and observation of successfully grown businesses, I propose 4 essential principles required for this process. These four essential principles are:
- Excited employees lure their replacements;
- Build with only the best materials;
- Square pegs don’t fit round holes;
- Mediocrity is the result of a lack of intention.
Succession Planning Principle 1: Excited Employees Lure Their Replacement
As I have moved laterally and upward in my career I have faced many challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time. In fact, some of those challenges were so large that I struggled to have a positive attitude about the situation. This lack of enthusiasm has actually spilled over into my attitude about my role in the company. The struggle I have in this situation includes my ability to be respectful of my superiors, the company, and my team. I suspect that I’m not the only one that has vented at the water cooler. In fact, I suspect that a few of you reading this right now have probably come right from the water cooler where the conversation from you or from the other employees has bordered on or walked over the line of disrespect.
If you are like me, you may have noticed that a certain way to keep employees in their current positions, or have them move to other departments or divisions, is to continue to ooze negativity about your current role, the organization, your boss, and your counterparts. Most of your team members hear your frustrations and simply recognize that they prefer to keep you right where you are – you have become their filter. Most of your team will do what they can to continue to use you as the filter as long as you are willing to provide the service. However, there is a better way.
By taking the high road in these conversations and continuing to look for the positives in the current environment, you breed a culture of excitement & commitment to the team. This culture and commitment is the fertile ground needed to develop your own succession plan. As your team sees your excitement and the positive future that you envision their desire to fill your shoes grows.
The role of the leader in succession planning is to provide an excellent example of teamwork – respect – excitement & commitment without the caustic backstabbing and bitterness that undermines your ability to expand the roles of your current staff. Although this sounds good in an article, book, seminar, or a simple conversation like we are having, we need to find practical applications of these leadership truths.
Therefore, today I challenge you to work on building excitement within your organization and finding the right therapy for the negativity. One practical solution for the therapy is to keep a journal and use it everyday. Using a journal takes practice, but the ten to twenty minutes it takes to write out your frustrations & articulate your plans to turn things around will have tremendous and immediate impact on your team. In addition, while you are journaling, have a goal to write down at least one positive idea for the day, week, or month. Being deliberate to replace the negative with positives. This exercise will help you stay focused on improvements, lighten your spirits, and invigorate your team.
Succession Planning Principle 2: Don’t Settle for less than the “A” Team
One way to invigorate the team & provide excitement is to continue to backfill your organization with outstanding staff. Nothing encourages excellence quite the same as working within an outstanding team. The adage that says that your team is only as strong as the weakest link is true. Additionally, the leader has a choice of the quality of staff that get placed on the team or that are allowed to continue on the team. Succession planning must evaluate skills – emotional maturity & character strength of the candidate.
My heart breaks when I hear teams built with the candidates that seem to almost qualify for the position. I am reminded of my sports experiences as I was growing up. Team building was a deliberate process of weeding to find the best skill available. This selection process included:
- Recruitment – The best available were actively recruited.
- Competition – The top candidates competed head-to-head to determine the winner.
- Selection – The team captain and coach would size of the candidates and select the best.
- Development – Each team member was pushed harder and further to develop their skills.
- Adjustments – As better talent was available or individual skills developed in other areas, players were moved where they would provide the best benefit or off the team altogether.
Moving individuals off of the team may sound extreme to some, however it must be considered to select the best for the future.
Current procedures in many organizations involve the review of a resume, a verbal interview, and possibly rudimentary testing to examine technical capabilities. However, the interview process is missing the competitive framework that refines the candidates and sets the expectation that excellence is the minimum standard. Therefore, I encourage you to write down the metrics you use to score the performance of employees in their current position. After writing them down and ensuring they are distributed to your entire team, use them in the interviewing process. During the interview, ask questions that reveal how each candidate stacks up against the other members of your team.
By having an objective selection process, you can avoid the ambiguity most managers provide to new recruits. While I believe in testing, you must be clever in developing the test. I suggest you focus on the traits and skills needed for excellence without unnecessary regulations. By removing the superfluous processes you will increase your ability to properly place the candidate within the correct role in the organization. In addition, this selection criteria should be the same as that used during the regular team evaluations. The rules stay the same – the skills increase & the team improves.
Most highly effective teams select players to fulfill specific niches with excellent fundamental skills. Therefore, it is important that you focus on the training needed to take the fundamental skills and turn them into highly specialized & effective skills during career growth. This focus must be explained to the employee so that they understand the importance of excellent performance and that this development is primarily targeted at company objectives. The staff must be trained with the skills to fulfill the company’s vision & accomplish the company’s mission. Input from the team member regarding additional skills or refinement of existing skills is essential. This engagement helps develop the team member by establishing buy-in & relevance. Not only is the leader required to cast the vision of the company, the leader must clearly communicate the importance of developing the team to meet the growing needs of the organization.
Growth for growth’s sake may put pressure on the organization to stick with the staff they have through the entire life-cycle of the company. However, as with most things in life, there are times and places for certain team members. You will eventually have to replace everyone in the organization. These replacements can be due to health, changes in strategic directions, or because the staff no longer meets the mark of high performance. Therefore, your succession plan must always include the option to replace staff at any time. If you are truly committed to excellence you must continue to look for the best employees for your organization, this means that everyone on the team may be replaced by either a different or better set of skills. Knowing this is a real option doesn’t put undue pressure on the team, it typically provides an environment that propels high performers and weeds out those that fall short. In fact, after replacing staff, those that are replaced often have a better sense of why they were replaced if this message is consistent and constant during the growth of the organization. In addition, the skills that the replaced staff has developed over time may be more useful to a different organization and liberating them from your team may put them into a team where they fit better and can provide more value.
Succession Planning Principle 3: Square Pegs, Round Holes
As you are building your best team, be careful not to lose sight of how the organization is structured and what roles are required. As I have grown in my own career, I am continually challenged to focus on only the roles in the organization and remove the names from the organization chart regularly. This removal process helps you understand the skills needed to perform the work absent the personality that is currently filling the role. Where we often get off track as team leaders is when we allow the personalities to overrule good judgement for the skills needed on the team. Therefore, you will be significantly more successful building your team if you approach the development of the organization chart in the following three steps:
Organization Charts Are Essential to Succession Planning
- Identify the key roles in the organization;
- Add the names of the staff into the box or boxes for which they play the role; and
- Add a blank line below the current person’s name and pencil in the next person in line.
Step 1 – Identify Key Roles
The first step to successfully building the organization chart is to identify the key roles in the organization. These key roles are those that are required for efficient operations & consistent quality to the customer. During the identification process, it is a good idea to write down the key responsibilities and authorities given to each role. Do not create a full job description at this point. A simple bullet item list of responsibilities and authority will help organize your thoughts later.
As you are creating this list of key roles, watch for overlap in functions required by each role. These overlaps cause confusion in the those performing the roles and will undermine your ability to hold individuals accountable. After the roles are developed, it is time to fill in the names of the individuals that currently fill the role.
Step 2 – Add Names of Current Team Members
Filling in names can be complicated and stressful. You may find, as most company’s do, that names are repeated in the key role boxes on the organization chart. This is especially true in rapidly growing or immature businesses. In fact, at one time in most companies every box was filled by the entrepreneur that created the business and he or she has successfully worked themselves out of boxes that were reducing their effectiveness for the organization.
The process of filling boxes identifies where your staff is stretched beyond effectiveness. If you find that these key roles are filled without stretching staff too far, consider consolidating the roles into a super-role. By creating super-roles, you will reduce the complexity of the organization.
In addition to adding names to the boxes, pay close attention to the responsibilities & authority required for each role. It is normal and healthy to have individuals in the organization chart that have not mastered all the responsibilities of the role. At this point, it is important to focus on identifying deficiencies in authority granted to the people in every role. These deficiencies are attributed to a lack of delegation by the leadership in the organization. As these deficiencies in skills and authority are noted, keep a running list of training and delegation needed.
By noting the training and delegation needed, the leader can serve the person in the box by helping them fill their gaps in skills and provide the authority needed to succeed. The distribution of power is the responsibility of the leader.
Step 3 – Identify the Successors
As the names fill the boxes of those currently in the roles of the company, it will be time to identify the successors. The concept is simple, however the application is complex. By adding an additional line in the box, you can identify your preferred successor for each role. The complexity comes from a sober assessment of internal skills, personality conflicts, personal goals, and a commitment to putting the right people in the right roles in the organization to continue to grow the “A” team.
Not talking to the proposed successor is possibly one of the most significant & common errors while creating the succession plan. As the leader, it is your responsibility to introduce the idea to individuals in a way that there can be open and clear communication regarding the desire and abilities of your team members to fulfill different roles in the organization. In addition, this process is intended to give the leadership of the company and the individuals on the team to get into the correct box; whether it be lateral, downward, or upward in the organization.
Succession Planning Principle 4: Lack of Intention Breeds Mediocrity
After identifying the right fit of the person to the role, the leadership of the organization must be intentional in execution. The intentional behavior of the leadership will encourage the team – reduce surprises & improve effectiveness. This intentional behavior must underscore the future assignments – training – exposure – experience – power & influence of each person in the organization. This is a team effort. Each team member must be able to challenge the purpose of certain assignments without retribution by the leadership. This relationship will help the organization maintain a level of accountability upward – downward & sideways. The role of the leader is to serve the organization and the people of the organization to achieve success.
Following these four principles you can create an environment of accountability that supports individual growth and meets the objectives of the organization. These critical steps will help you build an amazing team and everyone on the team will reap huge benefits. These benefits include increased productivity – increased profitability & increased trust.