The Missing Piece of the Succession Planning Puzzle

How did you learn to be a manager? Just about everyone I’ve asked that question to have said some variation of “I was thrown into the deep end and it was up to me to sink or swim.” How often does that method of leadership development work out? Answer: about 16% of the time.

The latest Gallup Workplace Report (the gold standard analysis) shows that 84% of Canadian managers are failing to effectively manage those they lead. But it’s not really their fault. They are simply the next generation of managers who were ill prepared by the last to assume the responsibility of leading others.

There are lots of people willing to give you high-level instructions on how to develop a succession plan for your organization, but the part about how to prepare potential successors typically receives relatively scant attention.

Delegation Is Key

Robert Kaplan, former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs and current professor of management at Harvard Business School wrote:

“Failure to identify appropriate successors almost always goes hand in hand with the unwillingness or inability to delegate sufficiently.”

Most managers may claim that they delegate responsibilities to their staff. But what they really do is delegate tasks and retain the decision-making authority.

Whatever competencies you may think a potential successor needs in order to qualify for their promotion into management (or the next level of management), none of them matter if the successor can’t make good decisions. Contrary to what executive leadership programs may promise, an employee doesn’t go off to a two-day course and come back a great decision maker. A course may give them some good tools, but these potential successors must be given real decision-making authority to practice using those tools.

Fear of Failure Perpetuates Failure

Many companies have policies or practices in place that institutionalize a culture of distrusting their employees’ ability to make good decisions. Employees are required to run virtually everything past their manager or get two levels of approval before they can do something they know needs to be done. Such organizations breed controlling managers who learn to hoard decision-making authority.

Cultures like this make effective leadership development nearly impossible for three reasons:

  1. Employees don’t feel trusted to take any initiative, so they don’t.
  2. Potential successors don’t receive the autonomy they need to gain leadership experience and progress in their career.
  3. Potential successors will leave before they can be promoted if they are not given any substantial decision-making authority.

Coaching Must Underpin the Process

I am not suggesting that managers should abdicate their decision-making authority to their subordinates (see tips to effective delegation). What is required for future leaders to be prepared to take on greater responsibilities, however, is a substantial shift in the way managers think of their own role. Managers must learn to be less controlling, and more motivating. They must do less of telling their people what to do, and more of asking thought-provoking questions that lead employees to find solutions to their work-related problems.

Just as an effective parent does not jump in to solve all of their children’s problems, managers must resist the urge to ‘take over’ when a problem comes to light. They must allow the designated employee to deal with it; even if it means that sometimes it won’t be handled exactly the way the manager would handle it.

When employees make good decisions, managers must learn to increase their autonomy and decision-making authority. When employees make poor decisions, managers must learn to ask them how they think they can be more successful next time, rather than pointing out the obvious mistake and laying blame.

The Upshot

Effective succession planning does not need to be complicated. It just needs to focus on the one area that underpins the entire process – employee development. And the key ingredient of employee development is deliberate, thoughtful coaching from the successor’s direct manager. Only when managers learn to effectively coach their team members will the next generation of managers be better prepared to lead than the last.


I welcome your comments. What has your experience been with succession planning (positive or negative)?

2 Responses

  1. Very good. Sometimes also don’t delegate because they think that there way is the right way and the employees will not do things the way the manager thinks the task should be done. In doing so the manager risk not seeing task possible complete In even a better way.

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