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Creating A Culture For Succession Planning

Succession Planning is an important part of leadership

Business leaders who are concerned with their future and legacy place great importance on establishing succession planning processes that impact multiple levels of management within their organization. Succession planning generally has several elements including talent assessment, development goals, advanced leadership education, mentoring or coaching and special leadership projects.

Unfortunately, while these programs are very effective at developing future leaders, they can lack the speed and development of business intelligence that is only nurtured from a culture of succession planning. This means leaders are fostered from leadership teams where natural and dedicated leaders naturally rise to the top of their peers.

In a meeting with the senior leadership team of a biotech company, they remarked that not one of their 22 middle managers was close to being ready for promotion to the senior leadership team. This was very discouraging and left the organization vulnerable.

Setting Up A Culture Of Succession Planning

They didn’t have the resources or time to develop a formal succession planning process. Instead, they created a middle management team consisting of all 22 middle managers. They were chartered as a unified management team responsible for optimizing operational excellence and culture.

The middle managers started by identifying the most impactful threats and opportunities for the business during the next 12 to 24 months. That future perspective of the business led them to clarify their new role as a leadership team necessary to lead the operational excellence and culture given the changes they were anticipating.

Old Goal: Prepare managers to fill the current role in leadership.

New Goal: Prepare managers to fill the role in leadership based on future expectations for that role in a year or two from the current state.

With the future state in mind, the middle management team developed a description of new attitudes and behaviors they would be demonstrating with their direct reports, each other and senior leaders to improve the plant’s operational performance and culture based on how the plant needed to function a year or two later.

Then, they agreed on new team habits for solving problems cross-functionally, speaking with a unified voice to the rest of the organization, sharing information transparently with each other and supporting each other to be successful.

Having clearly agreed upon team behaviors that impact business results, they identified systemic breakdowns that caused delays, duplication of effort and employee frustration and developed projects to improve processes, skills and expectations with cross-functional alignment.

The middle management team decided that based on what they needed to accomplish for the site, they needed to meet every two weeks. These meetings were mostly focused on surfacing and solving cross-functional breakdowns and making recommendations to the senior leadership team on ways to improve operational excellence to reduce costs while improving performance.

Besides almost eliminating silo thinking and behavior within six months, each middle manager was now learning how the entire business functioned rather than just understanding their own technical functional area. This meant they were more effective at making decisions and understanding the impact of their decision on other functional areas across the organization.

Instead of slowing things down by including more managers, it sped up implementation efforts because there was better coordination, conflict resolution and collaboration for coordinating complex change efforts. In addition, now that middle managers were conferring with each other, there was a natural fostering of safe communications at lower levels of the organization across departments that supported faster resolution of breakdowns and even proactive prevention of breakdowns that used to regularly take place.

Succession Planning Actualized Without A Program

Within a year, middle managers were taking on greater responsibility and accountability for site operations and culture. They were leading organizational change and improvement efforts. They were taking more initiative to proactively surface and resolve legacy breakdowns in the site. Many middle managers were confided in when the senior leadership team was tackling major challenges.

Most importantly, 12 months after initiating the middle management team, the senior leadership team identified eight middle managers who were now fully qualified to replace members of the senior leadership team. In fact, the organization added two middle managers to the senior leadership team and by the end of the next 12-month period, promoted three other middle managers to replace senior leadership team members who were promoted and transferred to new locations in the corporate system.

Finally, this site went from being an average low-performing plant to the highest-performing site within the same 12-month period.

Getting Started: Simple Steps To Build Momentum

The first step in this process is to identify the business challenges the organization will be facing in the next three to five years and how leadership will need to lead differently to effectively respond. This includes any new mindsets, new behaviors and new approaches for solving problems that are necessary for being more effective in addressing future challenges.

Secondly, leadership should make a collective and individual commitment to changing those leadership habits and begin practicing them on current challenges that need solving now. Habits are developed over time in real application, so it’s advantageous to create the opportunity for current leaders to grow, identify those leaders who won’t grow into the future leaders that are necessary and begin identifying who might fill the role in the future.

Finally, the more leaders are demonstrating a new mindset and new habits of behavior with successful results, the more they can be trusted with more important and larger change projects that can cement their ability to execute effectively, their business acumen skills and their thinking at the same time.

In addition, those who are reporting to these leaders of change can learn through effective role models in current leadership positions. So be a role model for changing mindset, learning new behaviors, applying cross-functional accountability to get results and even learning from what doesn’t work and modifying approaches.

Leadership is ultimately about legacy, and legacy is ultimately about leaving the organization better off than its current state. This means your direct reports must surpass you in skill and contribution. This is necessary to ensure the organization thrives for future generations and long after you retire from your leadership role.

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For more on how to create long-lasting culture change…

This article was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post.

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