Grooming a Successor

A recent article in the Washington Post caught my attention. The writer claims to have “highlighted a little noticed aspect of the President’s tenure: He has devoted almost no effort to grooming a successor.”  You’d think that this would be on the priority list for any leader and should be a critical part of assessing any leader’s legacy. There can be numerous reasons why effort is not expended in this task, I suppose. Lack of time, lack of talent, lack of pressure, personal invincibility could  all be obvious excuses but surely these are lame ones. If we take pride it what we’re doing and want success to continue, hopefully even increase, we should be grooming people to fill our shoes don’t you think? This is certainly true for senior leadership but also true for those of us with unique pockets of technical expertise.

How then do we groom our successors? I’d like to suggest a few ideas for your consideration:

1. Create a job description: Document why your job exists and the “hard” and “soft” knowledge and skills required to be successful. Be sure to include those aspects that you have “learned the hard way” and would be beneficial to a newcomer. Add more detail that the human resources template if you feel it’s helpful.

2. Identify a Candidate Pool: Document the names of potential candidates and degree of readiness to be successful in the job you just defined. For example “ready now”, “ready in one year”, “ready in three years”. For each candidate in your pool document concrete actions (new assignments, additional training etc) that must occur to have each candidate classified as “ready now”. In concert with others activate these actions. Ensure that you have not fallen into the trap of choosing clones of yourself. Remember that you are building for a “tomorrow” that may be quite different from “today”.

3. Monitor Progress: Be actively engaged with the people in your pool. Get in the “mud puddle” with them at often as you can. Be available as mentor and/or coach. At least every six months, update your progress report on each candidate. Be open to adding and removing people from your pool as needed. Gain support from other influential leaders for the development of the candidates in your pool.

 4. Fill the Job: Place the most “ready” candidate in the job once you have prepared the way and minimized any “transition shock”. Be available to help when needed but move away and monitor from a distance.

What do you think of these proposed steps? How do you approach succession planning in your organization?

About Alex Pollock

Alex Pollock has been studying leadership effectiveness for more than 30 years. A former leader in environment, health and safety, and public affairs at The Dow Chemical Co., he learned that we all have leadership roles to play. He enjoys discussing new ideas and sharing practical ways we can all become better leaders.

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