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Are you planning for the future? Designing and executing a succession plan

Richard Hadden for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2021

Do you want to work forever?

While some say yes to this question, others envision a day when they can look back on the success of their careers, and look ahead to fulfilling their lives’ other dreams, knowing they’ve left their business in capable hands, securing their investment for generations to come.

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But it rarely just happens without a carefully thought-out and well executed succession plan that’s often years in the making.

Whether the role you’re looking at is CEO or any other key position, you owe it to yourself, your company, your customers, your owners and your employees to fill the role, without interruption, and with someone who instills maximum confidence in everyone.

Most succession planning is envisioned as an orderly transition when the incumbent gracefully retires, according to plan, after a long and rewarding career. But without putting too fine a point on it, the urgency of starting your plan now is the fact that the transition, in some cases, is forced to take place suddenly, for any variety of reasons.

Here’s the advice some of the leaders and business owners I’ve worked with over the last 25 years have offered to make this dream a reality.

1. First, be proactive. Never has the title of Harvey McKay’s bestselling book Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty been more applicable. Some of the best succession results I’ve seen have come from succession plans started three to as many as 10 to 12 years before the actual succession was realized.

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2. Hire with succession in mind. I’m not saying to hire only those you would consider for succeeding key leaders in your organization, but populate the pipeline with enough potential candidates who can not only perform the function you hired them for but could become serious contenders for roles you know you’ll need to replace.

3. With these long-term general practices in place, you can turn your attention to the question of creating continuity for a specific role or position in the company.

  • Evaluate your prospects. What skills, behaviors, traits and values do you know to be predictors of success in the job? Take an inventory of the people whom you could possibly consider. Play a match game, and see who remains on the list and who can be eliminated (from consideration for succession – not fired).

  • Identify a short list. These are people you could honestly see in the incumbent’s role. Narrow down your list by going beyond the obvious questions of skill, experience and temperament:

o Do they even want to be considered for the job?

o Are they a lifelong learner? Do they exhibit curiosity? Are they teachable?

o Would they maintain or enhance your company’s culture in the new role?

o How are they regarded by the people who would be working with them? If you’ve been in the practice of regularly surveying your workforce, you’ll know the answer to this question.

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o And the most crucial and relevant question of all: Is this person an outstanding leader – not just a capable manager?

In some cases, you might have more than one person you’re considering. Be upfront. Be transparent. Don’t hide from them, or anyone else, that they’re under consideration. A little healthy competition can be good for everyone, but be very careful not to set up a destructive competition that could result in you losing one, or even all, of your candidates prematurely. In this stage, coach, observe, provide feedback.

  • To help you narrow the field to one, consider whether or not their skills complement those of the incumbent. Do they provide some new quality they could bring to the role without sacrificing critical qualities of the incumbent? Prepare them with stretch assignments, get them working with people from all across the organization, put them in situations they may never have experienced but that will test their potential to be successful when (or if) they take over the reins. Help them build relationships outside your organization – relationships that will be critical to their success.

  • Once you’ve settled on “the one,” get to work on them. Train the heck out of them. They’ll need new skills and to improve on the skills they already possess. Enroll them in courses. Ask them to read certain books the incumbent may have found helpful, and then to add to the reading list new titles that will provide a constant source of new ideas, as well as reinforce the tried-and-true ones. Let them experience everything they’ll see when they take over. And constantly observe, evaluate, coach, help.

  • Don’t be afraid to pull the plug. If at some point, it becomes clear to you, to others and especially to the candidate themselves that this just isn’t going to work – by all means, end the process. Quickly, humanely, restoratively and, if possible, in a way that lets them continue to contribute in the role they’ve already excelled at. Remember, others are watching. If pushing the eject button results in a hard landing, you’ll be hard-pressed to get others to sign up to be your next candidate.

4. Prepare yourself. If you’re considering succession planning, this hasn’t just been a job. It’s been a huge part of your life. And now you’re going to have to let go. Talk to others who have been through similar transitions, and learn from their mistakes and successes. Your replacement – and that sounds like a harsh word, but that’s what they are – may want and need your presence as a guiding hand, and a listening ear, for a period of time. But, ultimately, you’ll need to allow that person to lead on their own. Be careful not to sabotage their success by confusing the organization as to who’s really in charge of their function. If you’ve chosen wisely, and prepared them diligently, they’ll do fine. They’ll do better than fine. end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

Richard Hadden is an author, speaker, and consultant who focuses on the connection between people practices and profit performance. His latest book is Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk. Find him online at Contented Cows Partners.

Richard Hadden
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