About that bus; step in front of it

It’s the workplace question with its own Wiki entry. But there is a far less dramatic, and potential more serious, organizational perspective to consider: what happens when senior talent leaves? In many organizations, the apparent answer is chaos. Nearly two-thirds of companies do not have people ready to backfill key organizational roles. About one-third have no succession plan at all. If only there was some old saying about failing to plan.

John Hancock has a series of ‘what-if’ ads and one is called “The Meeting” where a middle-aged man is called into his boss’ office. In one of the endings, he becomes a statistic but not the one you are thinking about and this is where art imitates life. The fictional character is among the very real people in the 55 – 64 cohort who will launch nearly one-quarter of all new businesses.

These are real people exiting for reasons that have nothing to do with wayward busses: they start companies, they teach, they move to non-profits, they indulge hobbies, or they simply retire. And with each exit, an organization loses decades of institutional knowledge, innumerable customer contacts and relationships, and a part of its culture.

You don’t fix the roof when it is raining. And you don’t start looking for new leaders and managers after the old ones are gone. External pressures tend to guide internal processes – first know where you want to be, then figure out how to get there. Take inventory of who and what your organization is today, and who and what it is likely to be in five years:

  • What will the competitive landscape be and how does your business strategy address it?
  • Will it be easier or harder to find qualified staff to meet those objectives?
  • Will that talent be more or less expensive, available locally or not?

Now assess the roster:

  • How many people are likely to retire/take other jobs in the next five years?
  • Is there a pipeline of replacement talent in place?
  • Who are the likely candidates for mid- to senior-level leadership roles?
  • What must be done to prepare those individuals to that level and how long will that take?

By their own admission, CEOs do a terrible job of succession planning even though they are fully aware of its importance. Maybe it’s because so many organizations focus on the here and now, on this year’s revenue targets, on next year’s product launch; maybe it is the Melba toast quality – dry, process-driven, no immediate reward – of succession planning; maybe it is the result of calling it planning.

Organizations and individuals plan a lot of things, but the value in those things comes from doing them. And that means a succession program, with measurable results because execs love things that can be quantified. Associate a metric with an activity and someone is either doing that activity or answering “why not?”

Being forced to look over the horizon is challenging and may be a shock to the here-and-now psyche, but no leadership team lasts forever, no CEO sits in that chair permanently, and this is not a bad thing. It is the natural progression of the workplace, just as natural as adapting to any foreseeable event, and organizations that are unable to adapt are usually unable to survive.


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