Succession Planning 101

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In our early study of Serving Leaders, I often swapped stories with my co-author, Ken Jennings, on a finding that we both encountered again and again in our various workplace engagements. The finding was simply this: the first evidence we usually collected that there was a great leader at work was a company or organization full of great leaders.

We liked – and still like – the paradoxes of life and leadership, and this one didn’t escape our notice. “You’re in charge principally to charge up others,” was how we said it then. Here’s a way I often say it now: “The greatness of a great leader will often make its first appearance in an act of leadership demonstrated by someone else.”

I would suggest we still haven’t nailed that which is the essence of leadership. This word – leadership – is a relatively young word, and the science and art of leadership is barely into its second century. (“Lead” is a very old word, of course; what I’m speaking of here of the word, “leadership,” and of the discipline of its study and practice.)

Joseph C. Rost, whose untimely passing in 1988 left a huge hole in the field of leadership, did us all the favor of carving the field of leadership down to a more focused and sensible shape. “Leadership is an influence relationship,” a piece of Rost’s famous definition, can now be heard coming out of the mouths of every contemporary leadership guru. Leadership is not force, manipulation, mere achievement, or any number of often laudable things. Leadership is influence, exercised inside a relationship, that produces more leadership.

We work with many terrific business owners, entrepreneurs, chief executives and general managers who are getting the job done, keeping the train on schedule, meeting customer expectation, making money, and, quite frankly, lookin’ good! But the day they step down or retire, the job stops getting done, the trains fly off the rails, and entropy sets in everywhere else. Why? These owners and executives aren’t leaders. They aren’t making more leaders.

“Leadership Job 1” is identical to “Succession Planning 101.”

Teach and coach your people to know, value, see and do what you know, value, see and do. This takes rigor and intentionality. Fortunately, the twelve to eighteen months of focused work this requires will not only prepare your company to thrive without you, it will cause accelerated growth for your company while you’re doing the work. This would fall into the category of “win-win.”

Throw out whatever remains of the notion that “making stuff” and “making money” is what it’s all about. If you’ve been successful for a while, you’ve already thrown much of this notion out. What it’s all about is growing people, serving people, adding value, getting better, pursuing excellence. Build a people and leadership growth flywheel, and profit takes care of itself, as does the preparation of future leaders.

Get a leader. Hire a coach. Become a learner. Whatever path works, secure your ability to pour yourself into those who follow you by being a person who is poured into. Leadership is brought to life through flow. We can’t give if we aren’t receiving. We don’t grow leaders if leaders aren’t growing us. In leadership, like begets like, and that fact applies to the process of growing leaders.

Let’s simplify: if you want to grow leaders, you need to be grown by leaders. We can’t give what we don’t receive.


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