Why It’s Never too Early to Start Succession Planning
When leading succession planning training retreats, I often ask my attendees to think about the managers they have worked for over the years—and whether or not these people were good leaders. It often strikes me that if I asked the managers themselves about their abilities, I might receive very different answers, because what I heard was astounding: less than a third of the people I spoke to said they had a strong supervisor to learn from and emulate.
Recent research backs this up, too. In a study conducted by a leading marketing information company, two-thirds of workers do not identify with or feel motivated by their companies’ goals, 25% of employees are just “showing up to collect a paycheck,” and a full 40% feel disconnected from their employers! These somewhat alarming statistics seem to apply to public enterprises as well as family businesses. So, what is a growing business owner to do?
The answer is simple in word, but complex in deed: start sooner. As I often tell the attendees at my succession planning retreats, it’s never too early to start thinking about the next generation of leadership at your company. If I’ve learned one thing over the course of my career, it’s that no new-hire—from the mail-room clerk to the C-suite and beyond—is insignificant. Here are five traits great leaders share, why they matter, and how to spot them.
One’s business pedigree will only go so far if it’s not backed up by personal principle. Years ago, a colleague of mine worked for a CEO who came into his role as an “acquisition expert” with a long track record of so-called success in preparing struggling companies for sale. Indeed, during the time she worked with him, he did in fact negotiate a lucrative deal that delivered the failing company into the welcoming arms of a wealthy conglomerate.
But during the 18-month acquisition process, the CEO’s character was called into question multiple times. He was known for making (and quickly breaking) important promises to staff at all levels. He never missed an opportunity to blame others for every perceived shortfall the business encountered. In short, his leadership was something people feared rather than respected. So, while the company’s optics appeared to be stellar, it was rotting from the inside out. He handed over a company with a broken culture and a bitter, fearful staff—so, although the acquisition was technically a success, the company failed within two years.
My mentor Frank, by contrast, was demanding but always fair. Typically, those who did their jobs well liked him very much, because they knew that if he said he would do something he could be counted on to do it. Instead of following him in blind fear, our staff was inspired by his strength of character to work harder and smarter—and his authenticity was the reason.
A good leader has a clear vision of where the business is going, and how they will get there; a great leader will be just as clear in their communication of that vision. Effective communication, in fact, may just be the most important tool a leader has for affecting positive change within their organization. Here are a few of the ways good communication can have a dramatic impact.
TRANSPARENCY about the enterprise’s objectives and operations is critical to the success of every company—public entities and family businesses alike. In a recent survey conducted by the American Management Association, more than a third of executives, senior managers and other employees said they “hardly ever” know what’s going on in their companies.
Speaking candidly about your organization’s goals, challenges and opportunities will not only help you cultivate an environment in which employees feel empowered to be part of the solution—it’s also more likely to lay the groundwork for a culture of open-minded problem-solving, which helps everyone feel emotionally invested in the company’s success.
CLARITY: In my dual careers as a business leader and succession planning retreat speaker, I have found that one of the most important aspects of good communication is providing specifics, whenever possible. When expectations are clearly defined—and captured in written form—it’s much easier to track priorities and performance back to goals. What’s more, one of the most surprising things I’ve found about this process is that the act of laying out these specifics clearly often helped me every bit as much as it helped my direct reports!
EMPATHY: This is widely considered to be the single most important leadership trait, and with good reason. Empathy, which is inextricably linked with high emotional intelligence (EQ), enables you to better understand and acknowledge your employees’ experiences—and this can only translate to stronger communication skills and a thriving company culture.
ADAPTABILITY: A leader must be able to adapt their communication style across the full spectrum of interaction styles, in order to meet employees of all levels where they are. Mike, my longtime Operations Director, always had the company’s best interests at heart. He led by example and communicated with his team in an open and direct-but-thoughtful manner. Because of his leadership style, he was respected throughout the organization.
I tend to think that if one has a strong sense of character, this will automatically manifest in a certain demonstrable level of commitment to the company and its people. But showing one’s dedication is important enough that I believe it deserves its own entry here. It all comes down to trust—if your employees can see that you’re dedicated to the same objectives as they are, they will be more willing to follow your lead in times of challenge.
How you show your commitment is up to you, and there is definitely a spectrum. For some, it’s demonstrating a willingness to be “in the trenches” with your workers, even when your role demands only that you lead from your corner office. For me, it has always been about continuously seeking to refine my skills—and showing my team members that leadership development is a lifelong pursuit, even for those who have already reached “the top.”
Although chemistry is decidedly less tangible than some of the other Cs I’ve mentioned thus far, it’s no less important. When one’s attitude, leadership style, personality and work ethic align with those of one’s team members, the resulting “good chemistry” seems to make all of the other stars line up also. Communication throughout the team is automatically clearer, and it’s easier to show one’s commitment across all facets of the enterprise.
Sue, my Financial Controller, replaced a team member who was far more qualified on paper. But in reality, Sue was a far better leader for her specific team, because of the chemistry she had—not only with her own employees, but also with other leaders and stakeholders from inside and outside of our business. Sue was unfailingly positive, with great communication skills; not surprisingly, she also consistently delivered results.
I’ll close with another critical intangible: courage. Louise, my Sales Director, was a critical thinker and always looking to improve systems and processes and to develop and grow her team. She was also not afraid to swim against the tide in terms of disagreeing with an initiative if she didn’t feel it was in the best interests of the company.
Unfortunately, courage—like chemistry—is not something that can be taught. It is something, however, that you can look for in your new-hire candidates, regardless of roles, and work to foster in all of your employees. So, how do you spot it? During my own career, I’ve found that courageous leaders typically combine high levels of competency with strong self-awareness, the alchemy of which creates a confidence that is truly unbeatable.
Keep an eye out for all five Cs, and you may just have a new perspective on the term C-Suite.
Here’s to Your Business Success!
Richard J. Bryan
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