We will never forget the first time we were asked to come into an organization to help design their succession planning system. Our first question to the VP of talent was, “Why do you want to build a succession planning system?” The answer was, “Because our CEO read about it in Inc. Magazine and said we need to build one.”
While we might be tempted to dismiss this story as one from an unsophisticated organization just getting started in thinking about leaders, we would be wrong. This was an organization we all know and love that was dealing with a problem that challenges all of us, no matter how large our revenue or sphere of impact.
Given what we know now, at this point in time and in this cultural and organizational context, how do we prepare the next generation of leaders to lead after we are gone?
That question is at the core of our leader development challenge. Leader development is one thing, but succession planning provides a pathway into a deeper question regarding why we are developing leaders in the first place, and our role in that process.
Having worked with a spectrum of organizations ranging from family owned businesses to corporations, hospitals, and government agencies in succession planning processes, it is clear that developing the leaders who will lead next is important. That said, handing off the baton is a challenging process to do effectively. This post is a reflection on the deeper questions behind succession planning — the purpose.
For our purposes, succession planning is defined as a process of developing the next generation of leaders to lead when our current generation is no longer relevant or around. This means that, aside from an enduring memory of our legacy, we are preparing people to lead when the leaders we have in place today no longer matter. The memory of what they did and the inspiration and direction they provided will live on, but they will likely not be around to see what the next generation will do. The gift of succession planning is that it causes us to think beyond today, about our history and about where we are going. What will outlive us? It’s a hard conversation, but it's so important. It’s like thinking about death and life at the same moment. To think effectively about succession planning is to open up honest conversations about the time when we will be gone and others will carry the mantle of leadership in our place and in their own way.
We must start there. Succession planning is not about us as incumbents, but at the same time it involves us. Succession planning in its best form is a truly sacrificial gesture, taking ourselves out of the equation long enough to think through how to best support those who will lead next.
The Consideration of Sacrifice
We recently had a conversation with a retired nonprofit CEO from a high-impact organization where he is now on the board. After I heard from him that the new CEO was struggling, I asked, “Why are you still on the board?” He said, “Because the board chair keeps pulling me back in.”
I asked him that question because my father, a three-time university and seminary president, always taught me that once you leave, you really need to leave. No matter who tries to pull you back in once the new leader is in place, you need to be willing to let the organization fail or succeed rather than be pulled back in.
Even if your successor was selected, developed and chosen well, it will still be hard to stay out of the mix. For the sake of your successor, your absence will be important. It will be darn near impossible for the new leader to even have a chance with your legacy hovering over the organization. Unless you left it a mess (or even if you did), you must go and let someone else lead.
Putting new leaders before all of your concerns for the organization and the mounds of experiences that have taught you valuable lessons is really hard. And as incumbents, we often want to control the narrative after we leave. We don’t control the narrative of the organization because we are simply selfish, but also because we feel responsible for it all. That’s the tension. In the end, the organization will fail or succeed, but not on our watch. Our most sacrificial act as incumbent leaders is to do our best to leave the new leader with a solid running start, and then to let go and let the new leader take the reins of each success and failure that will come. This doesn’t mean that a good succession has no overlap for handoff, but that overlap is most effective with a clearly defined purpose and definite deadline.
The Importance of Selection
When you talk to actual leaders about who will lead next, they so often bring up the question of whether or not the right leaders are in the organization. Do they fit the culture? Do they have the competence to lead? Are they the right people? In so many places, we simply don’t have the bench strength, and having a bench of amazing leaders is both a challenge of selection and a challenge of leader development. If we had a better idea what we are about (our why) when we interviewed leaders and potential leaders for jobs, we likely wouldn’t be facing the same dilemma now. Selection matters. It’s not the only thing, but it matters. Asking the hard questions of ourselves as early as possible is the key.
Who are the leaders who fit? Who are the leaders whose character and competence match the needs of the organization? And who are the leaders necessary to take us where we need to go? If we had made these investments in developing whole leaders sooner, our bench would be full. We are never able to get ahead of the lump of problems that just keep popping up, but, selection is just the start. Once we get those ready leaders on our bus, it’s time to begin investing in them.
The Integration of Development
What in the world does whole and intentional leader development have to do with succession planning? Everything. Or at least a whole bunch. Once we have those highly ready leaders in place in the pool of possible successors — those who are ready to stretch, grow and learn — now we begin our investment in them over the long haul. Developing successors is both a plan and a process. Developing leaders is a process of pushing and pulling a disequilibrium in leaders and supporting them while stretching them constantly.
Investment over Legacy
The reality is that many of our current systems are not truly succession planning systems, but would be more accurately described as legacy planning systems. In other words, we often create systems focused on making sure other people lead the same way we lead, as if we will matter in the future. Practical examples of this are in abundance. Organizations are full of leaders who, after they retire or move to a different group, continue to try to get their agenda done. In some cases they are dragged back in by shareholders, board members or former employees who are dissatisfied with their new leader.
Nevertheless, the challenge to develop succession planning systems built upon a foundation of sacrificial leadership is significant. Building this type of system requires tremendous courage and sacrifice on the part of incumbent leaders and a willingness to develop leaders apart from our selfish tendencies to build a legacy instead of preparing individuals to lead after we are gone.
As we said before, an effective succession planning process has to be explicitly sacrificial. Sacrificial leaders courageously develop other leaders who will lead their own way, and will be able to lead well when the elder leaders are gone. This is challenging, especially in organizations that have been built on the kind of personality that is the incumbent leader. Second, as stated in our argument for rethinking employee development, sacrificial leaders will invest in the development and learning of the leaders coming behind them in spite of the high personal cost they may have to pay. Third, sacrificial leaders must get out of the way when they leave, and they have to stay out of the way. Businesses, churches, athletic teams and government agencies are full of examples of leaders who left and then came back to their organization in times of turmoil or financial difficulty. While there are certainly times when leaders should make the sacrifice to come back and lead again, financial turmoil is not always the issue. Are successors properly developed to lead in their own way and with their own strengths? In other words, was the new leader supported and did the previous leader get out of the way? Did the incumbent leader invest in the development of successors early enough, or was it done only after his or her leaving was announced? Whatever the reason, what is clear is the need to think deeply about the real purpose of succession planning and the need for leaders who will consider paying the costs of identifying, developing and supporting the success of their successor.
Our successors are not our children, but they occupy a similar position in relationship to us. When we think about what we hope to leave in place for our children, most of us hope they will take the best of us and do the rest their own way. If we thought about our successors that same way, how much more effective might they be when they are the ones responsible for the future?
About the Authors
Dr. Rob McKenna
Recently named by Human Resources MBA as one of the top 30 most influential industrial-organizational psychologists and featured in Forbes, Dr. Rob McKenna is the founder of WiLD Leaders, Inc. and the WiLD Foundation, and the creator of the WiLD Toolkit. His research and coaching with leaders across corporate, nonprofit and university settings has given him insight into the real and gritty experience of leaders. His clients include the Boeing Company, Microsoft, Heineken, Foster Farms, the United Way, Alaska Airlines and Children’s Hospital. He is the author of numerous articles and chapters on leadership character, calling, effectiveness and leadership under pressure. He served as the chair of industrial-organizational psychology at Seattle Pacific University until 2020. His latest book, "Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure," focuses on the specific strategies leaders can use to stay true to themselves and connected to others when it matters most. Rob lives in Kirkland with his wife, Jackie, and their two sons.
Dr. Daniel Hallak
Nothing gets Dr. Daniel Hallak more excited than the opportunity to build authentic relationships and intentionally develop leaders. As the chief commercial officer at WiLD Leaders, Daniel drives strategic commercial initiatives and other operations, product development and marketing efforts that support the development of whole leaders. He is known for bringing energy and thoughtful research-based practices that actually make a difference. Before WiLD, he spent over a decade developing whole leaders in business, academic and nonprofit settings. He’s run his own coaching practice and served as a recruiter at Microsoft, a career management consultant at Right Management Consultants and in a leadership development role at Slalom, an award-winning consulting firm. He’s also served as a coach, professor and advisor at three higher education institutions. Daniel has spoken at countless events, conferences and professional associations. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in industrial-organizational psychology from Seattle Pacific University. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Kristin, and their three children.