Careerists can overcome senior management inertia and resistance by showing that they have developed their own successors. Good managers should quietly plan for their own replacement by evaluating their immediate team, examining who is ready and able to fill in for the manager now, who has potential for taking on a managerial role in the near future and perhaps who is never going to be able to do the manager’s job. There are a number of ways the manager can prepare his key staff to be available at relatively short notice to replace him or her. And most of these can be done unofficially in the absence of formal succession planning or without the involvement of HR or senior management: Acting Assignments (but don’t waste these on those with the most seniority, or in rotation for ‘fairness reasons’), task teams, coaching.
In my management/executive coaching programs, one of my objectives is to encourage my client to adopt the philosophy and practice of ‘manager as coach’. This includes not only giving guidance and instruction to subordinates in the carrying out of their current assignments but also in preparing them for future roles, including replacing the manager himself.
Most people think of succession planning as a larger institutional process in which the organization – company, agency or department of government – systematically evaluates its vulnerability and develops replacement plans for key people: where will people be retiring over the next five years? what would happen if we had a major debilitating illness or injury to a key player? a catastrophic accident to a team of managers? what happens when a manager gets hit by the proverbial bus? Organizations assess probable future vacancies, whether due to resignations, reorganizations or growth, usually with a planning horizon of perhaps five years, and then evaluate the availability of replacement people within the organization. They seek to identify those who have the capacity to immediately fill holes and to keep the organization going and those who have high potential for rapid succession into more senior manager jobs in the future. It can be a large and complicated process, systematic and deliberate, ultimately using many files, forms, processes and reviews. Or it can be a simple process done practically on the back of an envelope by a small cadré of senior executives.
But that’s not the only way we can look at succession planning. Responsible managers should take care of their own individual succession, even if the organization as a whole is not practicing systematic succession planning. Good managers should quietly plan for their own replacement by evaluating their immediate team, examining who is ready and able to fill in for the manager now, who has potential for taking on a managerial role in the near future and perhaps who is never going to be able to do the manager’s job. When it comes to having ready available successors in the immediate or short-term, the pro-active manager will take one or two key players aside, encourage them to prepare for their subsequent role in a more senior job, and provide real opportunities for them to develop. The adept manager takes care to be delicate, to be confidential about it, as succession planning and developmental coaching can cause internal sensitivities and unnecessary rivalries; but he/she nevertheless ensures his/her successors are aware of that fact and that they are being prepared for the role.
There are a number of ways the manager can prepare his key staff to be available at relatively short notice to replace him or her. And most of these can be done unofficially in the absence of formal succession planning or without the involvement of HR or senior management. (Of course, management and HR support enhances these initiatives by the individual manager.) The designated people can be given extra assignments, special projects, some additional training, delegation to committee roles that the manager otherwise would attend or some form of job shadowing.
The most common development intervention is to designate the successor for acting assignments replacing the manager during his or her absence. Often this is the only tool used by managers to prepare for succession, and often inadequately. They designate the most senior person, simply because they are the most senior, not because they have potential; or they designate each member of the team in turn – in the belief it is only fair that everyone gets a chance for acting pay. These are misplaced opportunities, too good to be wasted. Acting assignments should be given to these most able to carry out the role. Rather than merely to keep the peace in the unit, they should be tests for the successor to prove his/her readiness and visibility for real advancement.
Acting assignments in themselves are not sufficient. The main problem here is that the actor never gets proper guidance and feedback in the handling of the assignment – after all, the sponsoring manager is the one absent! That is why the manager should provide other forms of development to prepare the successor for a worthwhile acting assignment.
The manager who takes on personal responsibility for his or her own succession not only benefits the organization, and the developing manager, he or she also benefits himself. Creating opportunities to develop key staff allows the manager to practice effective delegation, risk-taking and building a legacy in the human side of management.
Individual Succession Planning is a good thing for the manager’s own career development. When we think about our own careers we need to consider what our future options and possibilities are, prepare ourselves for them and make it apparent to our senior executives our readiness and availability to take on more senior roles. One of the common obstacles put up by senior managers, sometimes not explicitly, is they are unwilling to promote the manager to more senior opportunities because that manager is too critical to current operations, indispensable in the current role; in doing so senior managers create a new risk and blind themselves to this vulnerability. The career conscious manager can minimize or prevent this obstacle by ensuring that there are capable successors already in place and that the senior managers know it.
Are you preparing the way for you own career progression? Do you have an individual succession plan in place?