Succession Planning – The Critical First Step

You have worked hard to build something of value and meaning – a thriving business, a successful partnership, a well running organization – and one day you realize that it is time to move on to other pursuits. You pick your successor, train them, enroll them into the position you held, and make your transition out. You discover new challenges and that which you have left behind continues to prosper under new leadership.

It sounds easy enough on paper, but successful succession planning is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls:

  • It is hard to let go of something you have put your heart and soul into. The emotional investment is just too great to walk away easily.
  • The vision you have for your enterprise is not complete, and you are unsure that your successor understands how to attain it.
  • What if you don’t find anything as exciting or engaging as what you are leaving?
  • What if your replacement fails and the whole thing falls apart?
Lynda-Ross Vega

Lynda-Ross Vega

These are just a few of the issues that successful leaders face as they begin to reduce their leadership role. Successful succession planning is not just about a change of faces at the top.

From a behavioral point of view, the first step is to help the current leader define what they want their future role, if any, to be. Leaving a role of leadership does not have to be abrupt, but may well involve holding onto key aspects of the role that continue to provide significance and meaning even while letting go of others.

Getting a leader to look critically and honestly at what they want their role to be rather than just addressing what the organization needs is an important and often ignored first step. It requires the leader to take a hard look at the personal side of their life and can be quite challenging for someone who has spent most of their time focusing on the overall welfare of an organization.

It is in this reflection, however, that the emotional aspects of their role emerge and the broad aspects of the proposed shifts in responsibility become real.

  • Do I want to have a continued presence?
  • What do I want that presence to be?
  • For how long?
  • Are there other things I would like to pursue?
  • What are they?
  • How will that mesh with my continued role in the organization?

By getting a leader to address these issues, they become a part of the process. It allows them to participate in creating what the future of the organization will be and what the organization will look like without them or in a reduced capacity.

It also requires them to begin to think through the issues of replacing the strengths, skills, and gifts they have that will need to be replaced, as well as the type of structure that will be required to do so. Many times in this process, founding leaders discover that they have covered so much territory that replacing their expertise and talent with a single person is not feasible.

While there are other important steps to effective succession planning, they can easily become awkward or problematic without this critical first step. Unless the current leader is clear and comfortable with how and to what they are transitioning, have a well thought through vision of the organization’s future structure, and feel involved in and/or in control of the process, succession planning can create a crisis for the organization.

Share your thoughts on succession planning in the comment section below.

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2 Responses to Succession Planning – The Critical First Step

  1. rescuesbizpartnerships says:

    Succession planning is a complex subject as you have pointed out. Once the decision is made, often based on things that make intellectual sense, the emotions begin to play a bigger role. Second guessing oneself may occur, or at least fears about what is next, not just for the company but personally. What awaits after probably years of doing, being and identifying with the role that was created? “Letting go is hard to do” even when you are the one who has made the decision to do it.
    The people or the person in line to take over, may not be so inclined to keep you on board or follow your advice about continuing your vision, strategy, etc. They may have a new vision or at least would like the freedom to have one. You may see a place for yourself as a continued presence, but those now in charge may see you as a threat. You may be holding the new guard back in terms of making changes or even in terms of their confidence level. If you don’t leave, it is implied that they are not quite up to the task. It’s essential that everyone is encouraged to speak openly about their feelings throughout this process before the new landscape is finalized.
    The person leaving will be helped by the support of family and friends to plan the next stage of life.
    Expert coaching that is capable of addressing the complexities on all levels can be extremely useful.

    • garyjordan2000 says:

      Thanks for your excellent comment. We completely agree with you. The issues you mention between outgoing and incoming leadership often don’t show up until after the fact. It is amazing how much grief, aggravation, and difficult situations can be avoided by talking about these issues at the beginning. Even if things don’t turn out the way people want or expect, the fact that they have been discussed ahead of time can make all the difference in the world. It is too easy to ignore these “sticky” questions and topics because they are uncomfortable, so it has to be the job of the coach to make sure they are aired.

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