None of us likes to think about being replaced in our jobs. We enjoy the security that comes with the routine and familiarity of our role. The notion of someone else taking that spot from us can be unnerving. That discomfort leads us to behave in ridiculous and self-destructive ways. We hoard power and information. We keep our people from expanding their roles and their responsibilities. We wield the ring of power and there is but one ring to rule them all (oh. Sorry. Watched some Lord of the Rings this weekend…). The bottom line is we like our position in the organization and we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
I submit that the best leaders out there are actively seeking someone to replace them. Whether they are looking within their own team, the broader organization, or outside the company, a good leader always has a notion of who will be sitting in their chair next. Why? Because organizations change, new opportunities present themselves, and people need chances to grow.
Those good leaders understand they might take another role in the organization. They might get laid off. They might have a life event that leads them to leave the company. Change is inevitable.
Those leaders understand it is their responsibility to ensure continuity and to prepare the organization for those changes. When the seat becomes empty it is too late to think about succession planning (a topic we’ve covered in depth on our blog in this post – click here to read it). Ideally that leader has identified and fully trained that person to take on the role at a moment’s notice.
The military provides a good model for this mindset.
When my dad was in the navy on a submarine, all members of the crew had to earn their dolphins. Those dolphins were a badge that signified that crew member could perform all the duties and responsibilities of every other member of the crew. It was a huge achievement to earn them. It was also critical for the safety of the entire crew because if there was an accident, an illness, or an attack and the helmsman of the ship was incapacitated it would be kind of problematic if no one in the crew knew how to steer the boat. The navy’s leadership knew training everyone to replace anyone was a core success and survival factor.
We had a similar mindset during my army days. Every member of my tank crew could carry out the responsibilities of every other member of the crew. My gunner could load. My loader could gun. My driver could load. I could drive (although my gunner, loader, and especially my driver would argue that I was a non-driving expletive). If any member of our crew went down, any other member could take over. This included all members of my crew being able to perform my responsibilities as tank commander (which they all said was easy because apparently all one had to do to be the tank commander was read a map, give orders, occupy the commander’s hatch, and eat beef jerky). Again, I was responsible for training someone to replace me at a moment’s notice.
Carry that mindset over to your team. If you get sick, quit, get promoted or otherwise vacate your chair, is someone on your team immediately ready to take over? Have you given them all the training, skills, and capabilities they will need to succeed in that role? If not, you need to get cracking.
Identify the skill and experience gaps your possible successors have to overcome before they can take on your role. It shouldn’t be hard to do this – you should know what they’re good and bad at. You should know what it takes to succeed in your job. Simply list the responsibilities of your role down one side of the page and down the other, list out the individual’s readiness to perform those responsibilities. For areas of deficiency, define a plan to get them to be proficient (give them a stretch role, assign them to a big project, have them take on new responsibilities, or send them to some awesome training courses). Once you have a development plain laid out, you can start grooming them to be your replacement.
If no one on your team is capable of being trained for your role, you need to know others in the organization (or even outside the company) who would be good fits for your position. Stay in touch with those people. Let them know what your role entails. Ensure HR knows who those people are and how to contact them.
You are responsible for ensuring the continuity of your organization. Even though you will be gone, you owe it to your team to set them up for success beyond your days in the commander’s seat. Make it a resolution to identify and groom your replacement. Your team will thank you for doing so after you leave.
P.S. That submarine in the picture is the SS-324 – the USS Blenny. My dad was an enlisted guy on it. The only fighting he ever did was in a bar and the sub stories about the ways they would mess with each other are priceless. Despite all the goofing, those dolphins of his are one of his proudest achievements. I’m proud of him too.