Succession Planning – don’t do as I do, do as I say

von Bill Crombie

Succession planning often comes up as a subject – sometimes directly, sometimes not so directly – in coaching conversations. It seems an obvious thing for leaders to be thinking about – after all, their job is to ensure the long-term prosperity of their organization, right? 

Yet it very often seems to me that the subject is avoided completely or danced around. ‘Yes, I know we need to think about this. We need to bring in younger people to the top team. It’s a high priority and we’re actively planning for this.’ And so forth.

Executive boards are in fact very good at thinking about this subject. It’s just that very few of them are any good at actually doing anything about it in a timely manner. And, until recently, I have found myself rather impatient while I listened to all of this and on many occasions, it was difficult not to fall out of my coaching persona into a consulting persona. I just couldn’t understand why this is such a difficult subject for leaders to transition from ‘planning’ into ‘action’.

And then I turned 60.

I also took a look at myself and Leadership Choices, where I’m one of the original Founders, and where we were when it came to succession planning. To my amazement, I found that we had been very good at thinking about the subject but not very good at actually doing anything about it in a timely manner …..

Specifically, the older ‘half’ (how did I end up there?) of our main company Managing Partner group has an average age of 62. We have talented (younger) people who should be closer to joining that group than they are - and why is this? No space at the top for them to move into. But wait - actually, that’s not a problem – all we need to do is get the oldies to lock on to the glide-path to a well-earned retirement, thus creating a vacuum at the top where the younger talent will be sucked up into. Couldn’t be simpler, really.

But hold on a minute – one of these oldies is me! That can’t be right! 

And there, in a nutshell, is the reason that succession planning is often not done well. It gets personal. I found it really hard to look dispassionately at the situation and see that it was in the best future interests of the company (and my finances, which I confess eased the pain) that me and my colleagues not only decide to step down as Managing Partners, but to set a date (July 2017) when this will happen. The unusual thing in respect of our decision – and I think this is why the process will work well – is that the step-down proposal was not driven by those to whom the future executive management of the firm will be entrusted, but by people who are stepping down.  We are, after all, a firm focused on leadership coaching – if we can’t lead our own firm in an optimal way, who are we to coach others in a similar situation?

This doesn’t mean that the stepping-down Managing Partners are packing their bags and heading for the golf course. We all love coaching, and all have plenty gas in the tank for several more years of doing what we love. We’ll remain in the firm as Equity Partners and retain our shareholdings until such times as these holdings need to be transferred to the next generation. We’ll chip in our two-cents-worth (when invited to do so, regarding strategy and other big-picture issues by the new Managing Partner group), and eventually we will head to the golf course and / or beach, look back, and take pride in the legacy we’ve left behind.  

I think it’s called leading by example.

Bill Crombie is a qualified Master Business Coach and one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. He is also Managing Director of Leadership Choices UK. He is used to working in challenging multi-cultural environments and he has carried out assignments in most European countries, the USA, the Middle East and the Far East.