The lifeblood to any business is identifying and grooming future leaders. However, it isn’t simple. To see this challenge in action, we only need to look at Disney and its failed CEO succession or similar leadership problems at DuPont and Yahoo.
The first step in any successful leadership transition is to identify individuals who have the necessary qualities to lead. Just as critical is ensuring that the people you pick understand the unique nuances of the organization’s culture and are able to apply that understanding to the decisions they make as leaders.
A recent Kaplan Professional survey asked 802 U.S. workplace professionals with employee supervisory responsibilities the top three traits that define people destined for business leadership. Communication skills came in first, with 32 percent agreement, followed by “self-motivated” with 24 percent and “team-builder” with 22 percent. We then asked them their biggest challenge(s) regarding developing the employees in their company or department into future leaders. Thirty-one percent said work ethic, motivation, commitment, attitude and/or dedication; 28 percent said training or finding time to train, develop and cross-train; and 18 percent said lack of interest in more responsibility.
This research confirms that there are two essential components to leadership succession planning: choosing people who have the right technical skills and attitude and then providing them with the appropriate onboarding and training program to help them understand your culture. It really comes down to whether these next leaders can demonstrate what I call the three Cs:
- Clarity: a vision for the company’s long-term direction
- Courage: a willingness to embrace the leadership role and do the “tough stuff”; the ability to be a strong and influential leader
- Commitment: a devotion to the company’s mission and goals
It can be important for businesses to answer some very illuminating questions about their leadership candidates:
- Do you believe they have the necessary skill sets to follow current leadership and run the business?
- Do you know what their expectations were in joining the business?
- How would you describe their professional and personal relationships with other individuals in the business and with clients?
- Is there a feeling of resistance or readiness to embrace future trends and make changes in the business while retaining the overall vision for it?
Once you believe you have identified the right person to develop into a key leadership role, you can’t underestimate the importance of transparent and frequent communication to a smooth succession plan. The next generation may have different priorities about how to “do business,” so it’s also important to discuss the big picture with the candidate. Current leaders need to let go of the desire to have a “clone” take over for them. There are plenty of benefits to seeing things from a different perspective.
For instance, work styles may not appear in sync; older leaders may think a breakfast meeting should start at 7 a.m., while the younger generation might prefer 8 a.m. or even later. It’s easy to make an immediate judgment that starting the workday later in the morning means a lack of passion, but differences in style may not mean a lack of commitment to the business and its success. It’s best to step back, look at the bigger picture and shift to a learning mindset to more accurately assess the situation.
Above all else, current business leaders should understand that what got them where they are today may no longer work, so there is value to being open to what the next generation has to say. In an ideal situation, the decision to choose a successor does not occur overnight. Instead, give next-generation leadership candidates a good amount of time – perhaps up to five years – to demonstrate their value and connect with employees and clients. Having that transition period will go a long way toward ensuring a seamless and successful transfer of power to the next generation of leadership.