The power of succession

By John Langhorne/Consulting

Ruminating about 28 years of consulting with organizations of all types, I noticed an interesting fact. With one exception, I have never been in an organization with an effective ongoing leadership succession process. A few leaders talk about it but almost no one does anything about it.

It is axiomatic in organizations that the most important variable driving performance is leadership. There are numerous descriptions in the business literature and the press of exemplary leaders creating high perfomance cultures, whereas poor executives produce profoundly negative effects on previously performing organizations. Studies such as “Good To Great” routinely report that leaders who have been promoted from within the organization are more effective than those recruited from outside the organization. There is also a developing body of work on the proceses of leadership that can show how to chart a path to leadership.

Clearly, it is possible to promote and grow effective managers internally. The predictors and attributes of capable managers are well known and many people, but not all, can learn these attributes with coaching/mentoring from a person who exemplifies fine management.

The succession issue is particulary important at this time because very large numbers of baby boomer managers and executives are approaching retirement. This situation is an opportunity to upgrade the overall competence of organizations if care is given to selection, development and promotion. In a functional organization, given the unpredictability of hiring from the outside, why would anyone not grow their future leadership? So why isn’t succession on the front burner of more leaders?

Probably because it’s very hard work that must be undertaken with the participation of senior management, people who have lots of responsibilities and little time. Also, if you don’t do it, nothing bad happens; leadership development is a very long-term strategy. In addition, although the purpose of succession is clear, the writing on this topic is sometimes confusing and seems to be without a central focus.

Many effective organizations have some type of formal or informal organizational improvement process, usually directed by a small group of key managers and reporting to the CEO. An effective strategy is to embed succession in the change process where it fits naturally and generates synergies. Such a strategy gives the executive direct control over organizational change as well as succession. This pairing makes sense because organizational improvement is an excellent platform for assessing and developing future leaders. To succesfully manage organizational change requires all the core attitudes and skills necessary to be a successful leader. In the organizational development process it it possible to enact and assess on-the-job performance that demonstrates these attributes in real time.

This strategy also gives top management an internal tool to continuously assess the functioning of every part of the organization, identify areas that need attention and lead useful change. Because there is no single “right way” to make change in organizations the coordinating group learns fast, can share this unique body of knowledge, experience and practical change tools demonstrated to work in its environment.

Effective change programs begin at the top and work downward and sideways, gradually inviting large numbers of executives, managers and eventually, employees into the change process. Matching this with explicit corporate purpose, knowledge, skill building capacity and succession gives the organization a powerful internal tool for improvement.

Successful entrepreneurs are often keen to work on succession because many suffer from burnout and either want to sell the company or markedly reduce their role and responsibilities so they can have a life. If your organization has two or more layers, an executive and front line manager levels, and is functioning well, it is possible to develop and implement successful succcession processes using the above approach. What small business could not profit from improving its internal processes, performance, customer service etc. These are the targets of thoughtful organizational improvement and when accomplished, result in a strategy driven culture.