Leadership succession is a non-negotiable in a thriving organization. Too often an organization rises to greatness with a charismatic and powerful leader but fades into obscurity when that leader steps out of her or his position.
If an organization is founded on a good cause or a noble set of values, it deserves to continue to thrive through changes of leadership. Its leaders will learn that the mark of good leadership is seen in the quality of their followers. And organizational greatness is never sporadic; it is being built up by successive good leaders. Such leaders constantly ask: if I am no longer around, who can take over my work? Another critical question is: if I am suddenly incapacitated, will our mission be compromised?
Leadership succession only happens when it is an intentional effort in a culture that considers succession part and parcel of the normal practice of leadership. The default is that leaders tend to sit on their positions till they can no longer do so or when they are ousted. Either way, not planning for a proper transition puts the organization at risk and subjects the mission to jeopardy.
To have a viable succession, there has to be a pipeline of suitable candidates. It must be a place people love to work in and those with leadership potential are regularly invited to take up new challenges to be stretched. We must not obsess over assessing these candidates. In fact, the first order of things is not assessment; it is nurturance. Future leaders should be placed in positions where they are challenged and allow their colleagues to observe their giftedness, strengths and weaknesses. Even better is the situation where potential leaders are mentored and coached as they develop.
An emerging leader will feel cherished by her organization when her seniors are engaging and communicating with her regularly. Nobody wants to sacrifice for her organization if her aspirations and ambitions matter little. On the other hand, everyone feels fiercely loyal to her organization when there is lavish effort to align organizational goals to her personal goals.
The selection of the leader should not be done only by the incumbent; a select group ought to assist in the selection independently. In a culture of candor, the potential candidates should be involved in the selection process where their views and choices enrich the input of the selection committee.
The identified successor needs to be engaged immediately to establish her willingness and readiness. There are ample talented individuals but not a single unwilling person will become a great leader. Knowledge and skills can be upgraded but the heart's commitment is beyond our control. When the successor has made the commitment to be appointed, her readiness needs to be enhanced through a combination of job shadowing and targeted training.
The handover process between the incumbent leader and her successor is a thoughtful act if it is going to be meaningful for the successor. In order to set the next leader to succeed, the incoming leader needs to have a deep understanding of the history of the organization, to appreciate the strategic direction and current priorities as well as be plugged into the relevant networks. This can only take place if elaborate time and effort are expended in spending time together.
Finally when the baton has been handed over, the predecessor needs to get out of the way to grant her predecessor space and liberty to establish her own unique manner of leading. Guidance is done in the background and only when called upon. The period following the official handover is a vulnerable time for the new leader. The learning curve is steep and the emotional burden heavy. The best things the previous leader can offer are affirmation and encouragement. No matter how talented a new leader is, she will not mind having a trusted friend-mentor cheering her on the side.
No one says leadership succession is easy. Yet everybody knows that in spite of its challenging nature, it can be done. And it must be done as a part of the organization's DNA. The organization that has a succession culture is fertile soil for the nurturance of many generations of leaders. That is the organization I want to be a part of.