Succession Strategy — Timing Is Everything

Summary: An illustration of the time required for leadership succession. Also, the key differences between how that time is spent in planned vs unplanned successions.

In life and work — some things have a low tolerance for lateness: Getting to the airport. Taking the roast out of the oven. The arrival of an ambulance. Paying your taxes.

You might catch another flight. The food might be edible. Someone might survive. The fee can be covered. But lateness tends to expand the problem. It is costly. It is disruptive.

Sure, organizations that don’t prepare for succession will probably survive. But it’ll be distracting. And stressful. The chances of choosing a successor who will underperform or fail increases. The likelihood of losing key staff goes up.

Not being prepared creates an unnecessary hassle and increases the burden on those who remain.

Being late with your succession plan = missing out on the opportunity to do it well.

Few leaders will dispute that succession planning has value. But they also agree that it will never feel urgent. Or particularly interesting.

That is until it is urgent. When an unplanned succession event[1] occurs it is suddenly an extremely fascinating topic.

No one has ever regretted that they took the time to plan for succession.

Succession planning takes time. The execution of that plan takes even more time. And it is time well invested.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, there are three different types of succession plans:

  • Unplanned/Emergency Successions
  • Executive Leadership Successions
  • Key Staff Successions

Most organizations only think about executive succession planning after a succession event occurs.

Recently, in my community, there have been a number of widely known succession events. Many were early retirements. Some were unexpected deaths. A few were removals or encouraged “resignations”. In some, executives jumped to pursue a more attractive opportunity.

Unplanned successions have several tendencies: Their timing is inconvenient. Their notice is short. Or absent altogether. They often trigger a domino effect of a number of other leaders leaving soon after.

None of these events were described in the news or private conversations as “succession events”. That’s because the details of the departures were more interesting or dramatic or sad than everyone else’s work of moving on.

But regardless of why someone left, succession was what happened next. Precious few organizations were prepared for it.

Because unplanned successions tend to be short notice or immediate departures, not only would an executive succession plan be helpful — but an unplanned/emergency succession plan is needed. Unfortunately, that is usually lacking too.

Also, in most cases, partners or boards reached down to the next tier of leadership and appointed someone as interim leader. This leaves a gap in the organizational chart.

Suddenly staff succession planning would have been helpful.

A high number of successor leaders end up failing or quitting. For small and medium-sized organizations, every two out of three successors will fail. This usually doesn’t happen immediately. It usually takes one to three years for the board or partners to give up hope.

People rarely connect the dots between a lack of planning, reactive decision-making, and poor results. The failed successors will usually be blamed. Or extenuating circumstances. Not the leaders who should have thought about and prepared for this eventuality. But the responsibility lies squarely in their laps.

Both planned and unplanned successions take time.

Successions take time. But when that time is taken, the value of it is wildly different.

Here are two timelines that illustrate the differences. These timelines show what is typical. When there are exceptions to either — it is typically in terms of things taking longer than expected:

Main Take-away

Here’s the point with a nice bow on it: Your organization will spend a significant amount of time and energy on the topic of succession at some point. That is inevitable if it plans to continue operating.

What isn’t inevitable is when that time will be invested. Before a crisis or after?

Will it be invested strategically? Or reactively?

Will that investment more likely result in a higher functioning organization? Or is it more likely to result in ongoing instability?

The unexpected silver lining of planning: The work of succession planning builds better organizations.

The process of intentionally thinking through the questions associated with succession planning has an interesting byproduct: It makes the entire organization healthier and easier to manage.

Taking the time to think through topics like strategic direction, roles and responsibilities, stabilizing structures, wrapping up or discarding perpetually undone projects, etc — all lead to improved organizational performance and health.

How prepared are you for a succession event right now?

When is the right time for you to develop a succession strategy?

Take good care,

Christian

[1] A succession event is any event that triggers a leadership succession: Death, move, illness, termination, other opportunities, retirement, etc.

Originally published at https://www.christianmuntean.com on January 25, 2022.

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Christian Muntean

Christian Muntean

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I help successful leaders and teams dramatically improve their performance. Guaranteed.