It arrived on my doorstep, unassuming enough in its white polymer envelope. It was the geeky t-shirt I ordered for my science-loving 9-year old, the kid whose hero is Dmitri Mendeleev. Look it up. But that’s another blog for another day.
There it was, in bold, yellow and gray letters the most undeniable of truths: “Extreme Monkey-Powered Awesomeness Enclosed.” Sure, the t-shirt is awesome, especially if you are into theoretical physics. He’s all kinds of popular at recess, let me tell you. But aside from being a mantra I wish I’d come up with myself, it struck me as everything you need to know about succession planning. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Most companies talk about succession planning in the abstract, like I talk about “my novel”. Lots of nagging suspicion that to have your name on the NY Times bestseller list, you actually have to do something about it. And that do-something-about it isn’t hiring someone from the outside when the issue is pressing, such as at Joe’s retirement party. And more often than not, that outside high-flyer brought in to transform leadership fails to shine in the organization. He/she either wasn’t a “fit,” couldn’t conform to “our way of doing things”, or didn’t have enough support in the organization. That’s a costly mistake, both financially and culturally. There’s no question that there is validity in bringing in outside talent and perspective, but you have to take the long-term view and prepare the way for anyone to be successful in a leadership role.
Succession planning is all about the actual plan, hence the name. And it usually works best when you have identified and been grooming leaders from the very start of their managerial careers. You have proactively placed them in assignments that yield exposure in all pertinent functions and lines of business and given them increasing levels of complexity and accountability for organizational results. Over the long term, you have honed an in-depth knowledge of your business and the competitive landscape, grown a leader, and built their credibility with key players along the way. And if you can’t develop leaders from within, make sure you bring on outside talent with the appropriate runway of support and guidance from the exiting leader.
Oh, and one other thing. Tell them. Point them out—to themselves and their peers. Identify them early for a leadership track and make sure they are aware of the belief you have in their potential and the investment you are making based on that belief. You not only increase their performance and retention, but you put the gold standard of achievement on display for others.
So, next time you walk the cubicles, talk to your directors and managers and ask them to identify their high potential players. Assess what makes a great leader in your company and industry, and then create a plan on how to move them through the organization thoughtfully and develop them appropriately. Have a list of players ready to go when stretch assignments come up. You might just discover some latent extreme monkey-powered awesomeness enclosed.
Barbara Milhizer is a Partner at PeopleResults. She can be contacted at BMilhizer@people-results.com