Developing the Bench

Published January 2010

As an avid fan, I often use sports analogies in columns to help illustrate various business concepts. These were particularly useful in recent columns discussing the importance of developing and executing a strategic plan for your organization. Iíd like to stick with a sports theme for another month and discuss the importance of developing an able back-up for the most important position in any organization Ė its senior leader.

Back in 2007 as I was considering leaving the security of a large, stable company for the relative unknowns of consulting, I did what one is supposed to do before heading off on a new venture; I performed some market research. I talked to several potential clients to determine if they were as excited about the prospect of me consulting as I was. I recall two things from those conversations:

First, there appeared to be adequate interest to justify pursuing my venture. (Note to all entrepreneurs considering a similar route: Not everyone who tells you that they are excited about working with you will inevitably become a customer Ė especially when the worst recession in decades hits.)

Second, an unanticipated subject often surfaced during my exploratory discussions in that an alarming number of leaders were troubled by the fact that they didnít have a personal exit strategy from their business. As one owner quipped, ďItís not like you can simply submit your resignation; thereís no one to give it to.Ē

Iíve reflected on the latter point several times while interacting with organizations over the past two years and I believe Iíve noted some common threads which contribute to the mystery of the missing successor.

First, itís no surprise that almost all businesses start out small and on a shoestring budget. As the business grows, initial employees are chosen Ė typically for their work ethic, trustworthiness and affordability rather than for their experience.

With time and continued growth, the most worthy initial employees are promoted to supervisors and eventually to managers. But often little or no investment in training is made for these new leaders to become knowledgeable and skilled in their expanded roles. To make matters worse, the culture of the growing organization may still closely imitate that of the initial fledgling organization in that most decisions are still made by the founder.

Left unaddressed over several years, this can result in the situation where the organization has outgrown the capabilities and perhaps even the potential of the management staff. The founder is met with the scary realization that they are still the primary support beam in an otherwise shaky management structure. They are thus unable to realize their desire to begin stepping away from the business.

Obviously, developing capable back-ups doesnít happen overnight. It involves a conscious and concerted effort over several years. Key components include:

  • Regularly reviewing and revising a succession plan to reflect changes in personnel, observed capabilities, and business needs.
  • Investing training in each manager when appointed to a new assignment; discussions on new roles and responsibilities should also include the plan for developing newly required skills.
  • Continuing to challenge whether the culture is appropriately maturing with your organization; are new leaders stepping up to make appropriate decisions and take on proper responsibilities (and are you allowing them to)?
  • Being honest with evaluations of managers; keeping someone in a position that they arenít qualified for doesnít help anyone, including the individual involved.

Just as a successful coach plans for the eventual graduation or retirement of key players, successful business leaders must also constantly take advantage of opportunities to develop the bench. Doing so ensures that the organization doesnít become overly dependent on a single leader and is a key component in creating the business equivalent of a sports dynasty.

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