Succession Planning Is: A Springboard for Leadership

Dictionary.com defines the word “Springboard” as “something that supplies the impetus or conditions for a beginning, change, or progress; a point of departure.”

This translates well into the topic of leadership transitions.  Succession Planning is a process that “supplies impetus or conditions for a beginning, change, or progress; a point of departure”

Effective succession plans have four springboards built into the process.  Most leadership teams, however, only take time to build two.  Smart organizations, the ones paying attention and planning well, build all four.

Leadership Springboard 1: PROGRESS

This is the springboard built for the leader that is transitioning out.  Maybe “Progress” isn’t a word you would have chosen to associate with someone’s retirement.  But consider the difference between leaving something verses transitioning to something else.  Smart leaders not only understand this principle, they plan for it.  The process of succession planning, for the retiring leader, is the gateway to their next season of influence.  This is also true for leaders trying to navigate a mid-career change.  The healthy implementation of a transition plan actually increases a leader’s level of influence in their next season….it allows them to progress.

Leadership Springboard 2: BEGINNING

This leadership springboard has to do with the person stepping into the role of successor.  I find it interesting to see how new opportunities elevate a person’s leadership capacity.  It’s not that something mystical happens, but stepping into something new often allows a person to express their giftedness in ways they were not able to in a previous role.  In the same way a springboard launches a gymnast to heights they could not achieve on their own, a well planned transition strategy will increase the leadership capacity of the successor.

It is a reality, however, that not all successors succeed.  There are several reasons for this, but let me offer a word of caution in a specific area.  Don’t presume the successor has developed every skill needed for success in their new role.  No one is perfect.  We all have blind spots.  From the very beginning, build capacity for the successor to grow.  Organizations tend to assume (insert joke here!) that the new leader will have everything needed to move them forward.  Not necessarily.  Depending on the size and scope of responsibilities, it is anywhere from 6-9 months when their leadership deficiencies become exposed.  We’ve all seen it.  We even have a cute phrase to describe this phenomenon.  You can fill in the blank. “The _____________________________ period is over!”

There is no need to fall into this trap.  Build the successor a springboard to help them launch well.

Leadership Springboard 3: CHANGE

It’s rare to see a leadership transition that impacts only one person.  It is more common for a key leadership change to spark a series of other staffing changes.  The result is that additional opportunities are created for increased responsibility for other people within the organization.

Transitions create “opt-in” opportunities.

Be prepared for this by building springboards into your transition strategy that propel others within the existing organizational structure.  This is a unique opportunity to reward and promote talent from within.  Even if the springboard isn’t a full promotion, expanding the areas of responsibility for key people can be just as effective in affirming their contribution and building morale.

Leadership Springboard 4: A POINT OF DEPARTURE

Yes, Succession Planning is a springboard for Leadership, but not always within your organization.  The reality is that sometimes leadership transitions at the top levels of an organization lead to voluntary (or non-voluntary) departures at other levels.  Don’t be too quick to assume this is the response of an immature employee that lacks loyalty.  The transition of a key leader could very well be the specific circumstance God uses to spark a desire to transition for others.

Transitions create “opt-out” opportunities.

Don’t be caught off guard by this reality.  Instead, embrace it.  Not doing so comes across as small minded and defensive.  Instead, give yourself enough time to help your staff process where they are.  Have open and honest dialogue.  Invest in their career path and progression.  You are doing everything possible to springboard your retiring leader into their next season.  Carve out room to do the same for others as well.  Be proactive in in building springboards to help serve as healthy points of departure for everyone.

Let me close with this final thought – Nothing exposes leadership like a leadership transition.

Investing the time and energy to build each springboard is an important part of developing a holistic succession planning strategy.  But it goes deeper than that.  Being intentional about building all four springboards into your process is the ultimate litmus test for how effective you are as a leader.  Nothing exposes leadership like a leadership transition.

Succession Planning Is Not Replacement Planning

Succession Planning and Replacement Planning are not the same thing.  Replacement planning (i.e. search or recruiting) is but one piece of the overall succession planning process.  Developing a holistic succession planning strategy takes into account a broader range of factors than what a search process is designed for.  To illustrate, here are four key questions an intentional succession plan helps leaders think through.

What leadership transition process makes the most sense for your situation?

There are three basic categories transitions tend to fall under.  We refer to each as the Stop-n-Go, Intentional Interim and Overlap.  Each is a valid option, but used for different reasons.  Knowing the pro’s and con’s for each will help you make an informed decision in selecting the option that best fits your unique situation.

The process selected will have a significant impact on the replacement planning strategy.  Some candidates prefer to step into a Stop-n-Go while others are looking for an Overlap.  The process you select will impact how you develop your candidate profile and influence how you promote the opportunity.

What are the “nuts and bolts” of developing a succession planning strategy?

There are five critical areas every succession planning strategy needs to account for.  Ministries that account for these areas, on purpose or  on accident tend to have healthier leadership transitions.  Ministries that fail to account for these five areas, on purpose or on accident, tend to struggle.  Developing a plan that addresses each area (we refer to them as Signposts) impacts the overall health and effectiveness of your transition.  Replacement Planning is only one of the five areas.

There is a real temptation for organizations to jump prematurely to the Replacement Planning aspect of succession planning and neglect the other four areas.  Failure to account for all five Signposts is one of two critical issues related to poor transitions.  The second issue is tied to an organizations failure to think critically about the implications of the next question.

How prepared are we, from an organizational structure standpoint, to navigate a season of leadership transition?

It’s not uncommon for things that have no direct correlation to the succession planning strategy itself to become the thing that causes significant disruption.  For example, a lack of documentation in your governing documents can become the basis for confusion and possible division.  With appropriate planning there is no need to allow this, or other areas like it, to become a stumbling block.

How do we prepare and lead people through a season of significant leadership transition?

At its core, succession planning is about preparing the people impacted by the transition for what to expect.  Having an intentional strategy won’t alleviate every challenge, but will go a long way in helping those involved feel comfortable enough to invest in the process.  Investing in the development and implementation of a holistic succession planning strategy is one of the best ways to keep people engaged in the process and fight the tendency of taking a “wait and see” attitude.

It is hard to imagine how effective a replacement planning strategy can be without accounting for the questions listed above.  The answers to these questions, and others, have a profound impact on the function of a search team and/or search firm, the unique candidate profile that is developed and how the position is promoted.  The planning that comes from the broader succession conversation also informs the way a new leader is on-boarded into their role and shapes the way the transition is communicated to the broader organization.

If you are facing the reality of a leadership transition let me encourage you to start with the broader issue of succession planning and work from there.  You will have a more effective search process if you do.

In total, this series is three posts long.

Post 1 – Succession Planning Is Not Replacement Planning

Post 2 – Succession Planning Is a Shift In Stewardship

Post 3 – Succession Planning Is a Springboard for Leadership

Subscribe to the blog for posts to be delivered to your email (top right).

You can also follow me on Twitter @willardheath

Click HERE to learn more about how we can help your team address the broader issue of succession planning.