If you get hit by a bus tomorrow . . .
I have started so many discussions with my Leadership Team this way that it has become a standing joke in our organization. And while it may have resulted in a bit of bus phobia among the team, they all also recognize that part of their job expectations include grooming their successor.
Succession planning and building the bench-strength of your organization is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader — regardless of whether you or your senior staff plans to retire any time soon. Of course, that means giving up a bit of control, which admittedly is something many of us have a hard time with (yes, this is the pot talking to the kettle!)
Giving up control of the details, however, is a far cry from giving up responsibility for establishing a leadership culture within your organization. That one’s all yours. Leadership philosophies are a dime a dozen, and so it is your responsibility to set the tone for the leadership style that will be rewarded in your organization. And guess what? You can’t just pick up the latest best-selling leadership book and find a perfect fit. To be effective, you have to do some of soul-searching, and a bit of trial and error, to find the style that is the best fit for you and your organization.
Right out of college, I tried to be a Debra. I really tried. Couldn’t pull it off. The only time Debra is really a fit for me is if I’m talking to my insurance company, or if I’m in trouble with my mother. Otherwise, I’m a Debbie. I am not an overly formal, rule-laden leader. I encourage my Leadership Team to challenge my thinking, and I believe in being as transparent as possible with my staff (if I trust them with the kids, I ought to be able to trust them with the numbers!) If you try to “wear” a leadership style that isn’t a fit for your authentic self — trying to fulfill some picture of what you thing leadership “should” look like — your staff will smell it a mile away and your credibility will suffer.
But back to the bus . . .
In my experience, the key to good succession planning is to deliberately develop a leadership culture within your organization. Impacting culture is not a one-shot deal. It takes a consistent layering of efforts to make the concepts part of the vocabulary of the organization. We have done it through multiple versions of an internal “Leadership Academy” that has ranged anywhere from 9 – 18 months, through all-staff meetings and focus groups and intentional discussions, and most importantly through our actions. People who have demonstrated the leadership style we espouse have advanced in the organization, and those who don’t have either remained stagnant or are no longer with the organization.
Jim Collins has had a significant impact on our leadership culture, as have John Kotter and Max DePree, along with less traditional thinkers such as Chris Guillebeau, Dan Ward and Daniel Pink. We held supervisor discussions on books such as The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey, which gave us a shared language with which to break down departmental silos. And after a while, really cool things started to happen. People started talking more, and solving problems themselves, rather than “running them up the flag pole” for fear of what would happen if they made the wrong decision. Not every time, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
Today, we are consciously making choices to prepare for staffing needs five years down the road. We actively work to align staff members’ “gifts and graces” with the needs of our organization. We encourage staff to take little risks — that will either build their confidence or teach them that someone can stub their toe and survive. And we challenge our supervisors to find creative ways to maximize the unique skills of their staff, even if that means supporting them in moving to a different role in the organization.
And slowly but surely, we are overcoming our fear of buses. We have a clear plan, on paper, of who would step in if any of our directors were incapacitated. Would those “designees” have to stretch to fill the larger role? Of course they would, but they all also possess the core skills and experience necessary to keep us moving forward.
Sooner or later, there will be a bus coming your way. Are you prepared?