Sunday, January 10, 2010

Succession Planning

Opening kickoff for the NCAA football National Championship game. It doesn't get any more exciting than that. And for my daughter and I (and 94,000+ of our closest friends) it was time to get it on. The pre-game festivities, the talking heads, and the hype were all finished. It was time to play the game. #1 Alabama versus #2 Texas for all the marbles!

Who knew that 5 offensive plays into the game, the depth of Texas would be tested at the most critical position? Yes, after 5 plays Colt McCoy, the winningest quarterback in college football history, was done. Bring in the backup -- an 18 year old with almost no meaningful game experience. It would be his job to snap on his chin strap and try to lead his team to victory.

Let's talk leadership here, can we?

It was clear that this young man was not prepared for the situation he was in, on that night, on that stage. He was not familiar with the game plan. He had not been given enough repetitions to be able to step in and lead his team. He was not ready for the speed of the game nor the decisions he would have to make along the way. (Mind you, I don't think any backup freshman quarterback with limited game experience would truly be ready to step up in that situation.)

It certainly got me thinking about how well prepared my team is to lose a key leader. Similarly, I am not sure I have done all I need to do to set them up for success in my absence. Do we have depth in critical positions? Could the second-teamers step in and would they be able to maintain momentum and accomplish the mission?

Succession planning is hard! Here are 4 things to think about regarding preparing back-ups for success:

1. Backups need exposure to the game plan. Do we include 2nd and 3rd tier leaders when we establish strategic plans and set goals...or just the "inner circle" leadership team? The more we can expose others to the sessions in which we establish our plans and strategies, the more likely they will be comfortable with executing them should they be thrust into leadership roles. Things like vision, strategies, goals and objectives must be shared with the entire team so that everyone is prepared to step up when called.

2. Backups need game experience. Are we empowering our 2nd and 3rd tier team members to truly be leaders when they are in leadership position or do we just ask them to hold down the fort? Do we give people the chance to truly be in charge when we go on vacation or are out of the office or do they just keep the seat warm? Do we provide true, meaningful leadership opportunities to lower-level team members such that they can establish "muscle density" on things like calling plays (communicating orders and instructions), reading defenses (decision making under pressure), and scoring touchdowns (accomplishing the mission).

3. Simulations and contingency plans must address the loss of key leaders. Most of our "what if" drills involve things like the loss of a key customer, the failure of an important system or piece of equipment, or the interruption in the supply chain. But "what if" we lose a key leader? Are we prepared? Have we practiced under those conditions? Have we established contingency plans so that we can quickly integrate new leaders without losing momentum? Are we prepared to adjust the game plan to be able to operate under the new conditions and still accomplish the mission?

4. We need depth at every position. As leaders, we really do need to look at whether we have single points of failure within our organization. Perhaps we need to start by examining whether our teams are ready to win -- without US! Are we grooming successors and are they ready to step in right away? Similarly, do we have depth at other key positions? A team can be just as challenged with the loss of a lineman or a linebacker as with the loss of the quarterback. Succession planning needs to look across the team and ensure that the team is built to last.

It was a great game. While my team lost, my daughter and I had a blast. We both lost our voices cheering on that freshman quarterback. He did okay, getting better and gaining confidence with each snap of the ball. Who knows how prepared he was for the stage on which he was thrust? I doubt many of us could have pulled off what he did that night, almost leading his team to victory. It certainly highlighted the awesome responsibility we have as leaders to ensure our team has the depth to continue the mission -- no matter who is in charge. That's winning football. And that's -- Leader Business!


Jo Ann said...

I loved your blog, especially how you wove in current events to make your point. Great writers know how to do this and you are hitting the mark again. Succession planning is typically another form of risk assessment in the workplace and good leaders recognize that. In today's organizations, it is important to include many key positions in a variety of job categories so that when a need arises, someone can step up and fill the hole. As with any plan, you are right, the commitment for succession planning must start at the top of the organization. Younger/newer employees at every level should take advantage of succession planning within their companies and be crossed trained and educated to fill in the gaps. Ideally, cross training needs to take place while the departing employee is still working so that mentoring can take place. When cross training occurs, this limits the on-the-job training and the “learning curves” experienced by newer employees. As you know, this is often a challenge in government because one can not fill a position until it is vacant. In addition, succession planning helps develop a diverse workforce by enabling decision makers to look at the future make-up of the organization as a whole and can address the gaps between the workforces of today and the human capital needs of tomorrow.

Becky said...

Great post! You have a way of making things so clear. I really liked Jo Ann's plan of succession too... it is really smart to make sure to be prepared should some one leave a company or organization, or should a business owner sell their company. I had the opportunity to preview a book that hits the shelves on Feb 1st titled, "Built To Sell" by John Warrillow, that is about this very subject. The book is a parable about a business owner who tries to sell his company only to find out it is un-sellable. The book then goes in to explicit detail of how to turn any business into one that would sell- it is about learning how to create a sellable business (not how to sell a business). It teaches valuable lessons that every business owner/manager should learn.

davidburkus said...

Good point. I've often wondered why football coaches don't allow second strings a little more play time (or how this would be possible and still win). Still the lesson is thus: the next-in-lines need a lot of experience before taking the reigns.

Tan said...

There is no denying that its necessary but how do you change the mindset of a whole generation?

My personal thougths about the lack of succession planning is 1. It forces us to face our "mortality" ie that fact that we won't be able to lead forever and 2. Some great leaders have no idea how to pass the torch...where does one start? How does one down load all the knowledge floating around in ones brain?

Is there a Master's Program some where that Leaders can take on how to go about doing this???

Is this something you - Tom can teach?

Brandon Allen said...

Great article. It seems that we just never plan to lose a key member of our team or think about the prospect of plan A failing. You raise some great awareness for leaders.

Jason Seiden said...

It takes a lot a lot a lot of courage to plan for your own absence—more than many managers seem to have.

OK. C'est la vie.

But your 1st bullet is dead on... and a cheap way to work around the courage issue. Leaders: broaden your strategic planning circles!

James T. Parsons said...

I was proud at the level of fortitude that the Longhorns showed in losing their leading passer (and only real passer), their leading rusher, their leading scorer, and their leader period for the last 4 years, and faced the other best team in the country. Gilbert showed incredible heart, Shipley showed the skill to teach a quarterback before 20 million fans on TV (or whatever the total number was), the O-line showed more determination then they had all year, and the Defense ... well ... you had to watch them to understand.

I think your post is spot on and I think you are smart to use it as a teachable moment to those who serve under you, and to us all, as well. At the same time, though, I think the other teachable lesson is ... when you didn't plan for the situation, and it all goes to hell ... how to not lose heart and your heard, and stay in the game as long as you can, until help arrives.

I have to say as a longhorn fan, I find that game as much of the defining character as the 2005 championship. How many other teams could have come within 3 minutes of winning with a true freshman backup quarterback in that situation. It shows the valour of a truly great team. To the rest of the NCAA, the message that should be taken away, ...wait until next year - the Longhorns are still coming!


Crissy Groves said...

Good insight and a nice lesson to take away from a heartbreaking defeat! But what a class act when Colt came back out on the field to encourage and coach his successor. That doesn't happen very often.