Six Key Succession Planning Steps For Great Leaders

To ensure that all your hard work isn’t undone after you leave, play an active role in selecting your replacement.
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As happy as they have been in their current roles, executive leaders often reach a point in their careers when they are ready for a growth position with a different company. But after spending years building a strong organization and driving the business forward, they want their initiatives and improvements to have a lasting effect. That’s what makes succession planning such a critical—if often overlooked—last step for a great leader.

Succession planning does much more than facilitate a smooth transition. It is your opportunity to set the stage for the success of the next person at the helm—and to ensure your organization does not need to spend months rebuilding, and perhaps inadvertently undoing, your work.

The tenets of succession planning

Succession planning has six core steps, and it’s important to follow them in this exact order:

Find the right successor: Your priorities—as well as your organization’s—will determine the qualities you want in your successor. Should you hire for experience, skills, leadership qualities or other attributes? Each company’s requirements are different. Your answers to these questions will shape your executive search.

Transfer of ownership: Some of your projects in progress may not have any written processes and protocols for transfer of ownership. These include not only typical handoffs, such as systems access, but also an inventory of your initiatives and programs. Drawing the organizational roadmap will help your successor understand the vision.

Initial tasks: A leader has limited influence without political capital. Personal introductions to internal peers, welcome letters to employees and various other meet-and-greet activities help you transfer your political capital to the new executive.

Relationship handoffs: After the initial internal introductions, it is important to focus as much as possible on the external forces. These include your strategic partners, vendors, suppliers, customers and industry peers. This step continues the transfer of capital, with the focus on outside relationships.

Annual tasks: During this phase, you inform the incoming leader about the various annual responsibilities, such as operating budget development, operating team reviews, program recertifications and initiative execution.

Recurring tasks: This is where you can dig deeper into the daily, nitty-gritty details of how annual tasks and other processes get executed. Although it may feel you are too far down into weeds, this thorough analysis ensures that the recurring tasks are consistent with the annual goals and overarching vision.

How much time you spend on each step depends on your garden leave or notice of impending departure. If you are working within a short window, the two most important tenets to focus on are finding the right successor and handing off external relationships.

Identifying the most important qualities for a successor

Your priorities determine which qualities you want to see in the next leader—but other stakeholders in the hiring process may have their own goals. You are likely looking for someone who can cure certain deficits, while the hiring manager or committee may be looking for the best skill sets. Fulfilling both these visions can be a balancing act, but by driving the process, you can exercise a greater influence on the final candidate selection.

The primary qualities to look for include:

  • Leadership skills — leaders have an ability to listen and be responsive, as well as to inspire and motivate.
  • Organizational skills — every organization has some level of politics that the leader needs to navigate and influence.
  • Relevant knowledge and experience — the executive needs a certain level of technical prowess and industry background.
  • Cultural fit — look for a leader who can either augment your culture or disrupt it, depending on what your organization needs.

Besides these top qualities, consider secondary ones, such as:

  • Management skills to oversee projects and programs
  • Administrative skills to develop and manage budgets
  • Change-management skills to usher the organization through changes
  • Outside knowledge and experience to be innovative

The key to success: smart relationship handoffs

Every leader relies on strong relationships with both internal and external stakeholders. Internally, you transfer some of your political capital during the initial tasks phase as you introduce the new leader to your teams. For example, when Ashan Willy was recently appointed the new Proofpoint CEO, the outgoing chief, Gary Steele, emailed a personal introduction to all employees. In this email, he expressed confidence that Ashan is the right person to lead our company in its next phase of growth while carrying forward Proofpoint’s “culture of authenticity, innovation and execution.”

Next, the external handoff is even more important because it will determine the new leader’s success. Your replacement needs good working relationships with suppliers, vendors, partners and customers—especially when something goes wrong. Another important category is the possession or development of relationships with industry peers, including competitors. A successor coming from the same field would have already built these connections, but someone from a different industry will need your help.

External relationship handoff is critical because no one can control outside factors. Internally, a leader can play the political game and leverage that political capital. But influencing outsiders requires managing with authority—and often that is the more difficult challenge.

Thoughtful succession planning is a sign of a great leader. Your organization has helped you grow professionally and personally, giving you invaluable experience. Now it is your turn to ensure that you are leaving it ready to move forward and grow.

And when you’re looking for your next growth position, pay attention to the succession process at the company you’re considering. See if it is following the tenets of succession planning and is as invested in your future success as you are.

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