Replacing Yourself: Prepare, Plan, Communicate

Everyone knows about the talent gap predicted in this current decade, as millions of baby boomers born between 1956 and 1965 begin to exit the work force in droves.  While many will not exit fully, some will, and many others will seek consulting relationships, part-time opportunities, and entrepreneurial ventures as they creatively seek to support themselves in their later years.

It is astounding to me that many such people, in key leadership positions, have given virtually no thought, time, or energy as to who will take over their duties and fill their role when they move on.

And it is not just retirees—most people holding jobs today are so busy doing their job that very little energy goes into considering who will take over after they leave.  Many high-profile senior leadership transitions point to how very stressful this can be for an entire entity, its employees, its vendors, and its shareholders.  For example, look at the Ballmer/Gates situation at Microsoft and the on-going discussion about how Apple will carry on without Steve Jobs.

Why do we relentlessly fail to look beyond our own tenure at the talent we want to grow? While there are a number of causative factors, here are my top four:

  1. We are fulfilled and very busy doing what we do. Keeping the organization’s or department’s wheels turning is usually a full-time task, and that activity precludes thinking about succession.
  2. We worked hard to get here, and we are simply not ready to consider our departure. We make vague references to “when we move on,” but since the future is unpredictable, we limp forward day to day under a mental model that presumes that we will always be in this role.
  3. It is an act of vulnerability to examine the legacy we will leave behind of what we do that is so great, and what qualities a successor might need to be successful in the role.
  4. We fear that without us, the role will change, and so will the department, the division, the company. Simple fear of the unknown keeps us imagining that things will always be the same.

Our denial to consider—with compassion, grace, and resilience—the eventuality that we will not likely hold this job forever, keeps us from meaningfully securing replacements. This denial usually results in dramatic changes within the organization when a senior leader departs, and the task often requires a costly recruitment search, leader on-boarding, and the real risks of productivity slowdowns.

To the people working for us, the gig is up. They know we will leave one day. Many of them, younger and earlier in their careers, are hoping in fact for the eventual departure of the gray hairs as it presents the most likely trajectory for their own developmental growth, increase in responsibilities, and promotion. Contrary to what we may believe though, by not talking about it, we create more stress for these talented people working for us. When will s/he move on? What kind of person will the company want in the role? Will I be considered? Do I have the skillset and attributes that job would take? Do I even want it?

Learning to elevate to a leadership role is a process, more than it is an event. Most rising stars in organizations are starving to gain more clarity and direction on the behaviors they need to demonstrate, the skills they should acquire or sharpen, or the essential traits that they may be missing in order to stand a chance of adding value in a stepped up role.  But to get to this point, a great deal of rigor is required by the legacy leader, inviting potential successors into the conversation of what “might happen when I go.”

I suggest that legacy leaders nearing transition (or any senior leader) be prepared for the proverbial unexpected left turn life can throw by asking themselves three key questions:

  1. If I were not in my role tomorrow, what traits and skills do I, and those around me, think are important to maintain in whoever follows me?
  2. Have I articulated the parameters for ascension to my role to those who are most likely to fill it in my absence, so that they understand how/where they should be growing?
  3. What are the opportunities for bringing new qualities to the role that I don’t possess?
  4. What kind of development opportunities can I provide to the person or people most likely to follow in my shoes in order to give them tangible practice, feedback and learning?

If I do each of these things, the odds increase that when I decide to move in a different direction, the organization and the individuals most likely to step in are ready and willing—reducing stress, recruiting costs, and lost productivity.

Jim Morris