Becoming a Leadership Engine

Most organizations I talk with have a succession “plan.” It usually looks like a list of names of people who could take over a position at or near the top of the organization should there be a sudden need. Not a bad thing to have, of course, but it is not a plan. A succession plan includes the development required to prepare up-and-coming talent to move into that next job. Better yet, you could expand the idea to drive a next generation of leaders at all levels of the organization.

Last week I attended the Vistage International Members Conference in Dallas. Along with celebrity thought leaders (Daniel Pink, Simon Sinek, Stephen M.R. Covey), I attended a panel presentation of companies that were successfully developing the next generation of leadership. This panel was especially interesting because such a wide range of leaders were on the stage, from an owner of a $4 million family business to the CEO of a $1 billion global enterprise. While execution at the different sizes and in different industries may have been different, there were several key ideas on which all agreed.

You cannot start too early. Horror stories abounded of owners and CEOs either dying unexpectedly, being stolen away or otherwise exiting the business. The significant challenges of filling a gap can be compared to those facing people who don’t begin to think of retirement until late in life.

Ask the CEO who had to take over her father’s $220 million company at age 24. She will tell you that her biggest lesson was to start very early deepening the company’s bench strength for succession at all levels. One put it most succinctly when he said, “I talked a good game about retirement, but I was so attached to myself as the boss that I was certain I would die on the job. In fact I almost did — twice. But when I realized how serious the impact would be on employees and customers if there were a jarring unplanned change, I figured out that I was being greedy. The next day was my 60th birthday, and I began planning my exit.”

Identify, focus, integrate. The pattern of processes that each of the leaders used emerged as they spoke and was quite striking. Do not be timid about identifying those with talent and initiative. Focus attention on those whose capacity to absorb and put learning to good use will pay the richest dividends. Formal training and development are fine if you can budget for it, but focus your efforts on assignments and experiences to develop emerging leaders. Think of it as a farm, not a hunt.

Leadership develops over time rather than depending solely on singular events like a ropes course training. Use training and development dollars on programs that translate to preparing participants for the next level of accountability. Favorite ideas were leading a cross-functional change project, participating in an internal peer advisory program and managing a key vendor or charitable relationship. Focus on integrating the development work into projects, programs and initiatives that matter to the company now and in the near future.

Focus on leadership everywhere. Most of these leaders agreed that they preferred a focus on leadership development to a more directed focus on succession. Each of the panel members had a succession plan. Plans were known in their organization and each had done specific work in preparing one or more of their direct reports to step in should something happen. However, more important to them was their focus on creating a leadership engine at all levels. Programs for cohorts of high-potential leaders focused on adaptability, providing many candidates for any position that might need backfilling on short notice.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all outperforming their competitive markets by an average of 13 percent? Not bad.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, February 11, 2013.