Developing Your Bench

One of the seminal myths in Greek mythology is the story of Apollo and his mortal son, Phaeton. I will not recount the myth here, but let’s just say that Phaeton gets promoted into a job he is not ready to do, and it doesn’t work well for anyone concerned.

It’s not something anyone wants to think about, but suppose tomorrow one of your key leaders has a serious health issue and is going to be out — permanently. If you prefer, imagine that this employee’s lottery habit finally paid off and he “called in rich.” Or maybe it’s the CEO who is permanently on the bench. Do you and your team understand exactly what would happen the next day? The next week? The next year?

I’m always surprised when I visit with a company that doesn’t have a well-defined succession plan. For more companies than I would have thought, succession planning, if it’s done at all, is a spreadsheet with the names of candidates for an opening in each of the key positions. When I play devil’s advocate and ask, “How many of those people would be ready to take that seat, and have their own replacements ready, if the worst happened tomorrow?” most execs have to admit that they do not know.

A succession plan means not only knowing who could move into an open slot, but what development gaps the candidate has for readiness and what the plans are for filling those gaps. Training, development assignments, coaching, stretch project leadership, board exposure, public speaking and business education are all possibilities in a properly designed development plan. But nothing prepares a manager or executive for the next level like having to engage as if she were in the seat.

Finding ways to expose senior-level managers to the actual realities of working a level up is key to effective succession planning. One of my Georgetown coaching faculty colleagues, Scott Eblin, published “The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success” as a guide for exactly that kind of exposure.

Initially, his research was in large companies, asking SVPs and EVPs what skills they wanted to see newly promoted VPs develop. He defined a framework for what a new VP needs to stop, to start and to approach differently. Ironically, the book is used as a guide for creating development plans for directors as much as it is for newly promoted VPs.

I have written here about my Vistage CEO peer groups; however, I also run one that is a blend of key executives (largely CXOs and SVPs) and smaller business owners. When we get into problem-solving, we can really see a difference in the approach between those who are accountable for an entire business and the approach of those who have deep accountability for a specific area of the business (finance, legal, engineering, ops, etc.)

Those with general management experience, such as a local P/L or accountability for a division, have a very different approach to defining challenges and engineering solutions — and each month we can see the CXOs get a broader view of their own role as an officer, in addition to oversight of a technical or departmental function.

So no matter what your level of accountability, could you start with a blank sheet of paper and list the candidates who could step into your job if you were gone tomorrow? Do you know the gaps in skill, judgment, knowledge and experience they would need to be ready on that day? What about their direct reports? How about your own next step? Do you know what you need to be ready for the next level of accountability?

If not, you might make this a critical project for the next 90 days at your organization, as part of your risk-mitigation plan. And it needs to be said that this may be even more important if you are a family-owned business. If you have a son or daughter who is likely to be a buyer or would be the likely candidate to step in should you be out of the picture, his or her development plan is critical. Many family business owners assume that because the kids grew up in the business, they are ready to take the reins. You may not feel ready to hand them over, but you cannot begin to develop the next generation of leaders too soon.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, April 11, 2016.