Who will fill your shoes?

September 11, 2007
By: Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Who will fill your shoes when you leave your company? What actions have you taken to develop the person who will be your replacement? Succession planning takes time and a well-thought-out strategy. This article can help you develop that strategy and identify potential successors.

Who will fill your shoes? - TheFabricator

Selecting successors is a hot topic as many baby boomers reach retirement age. Human resource departments are being forced to look for effective ways to determine successors for management—a process affectionately referred to as talent management or talent management reviews.

Many companies have yet to put a succession plan in place or even put any thought into one. If you're in one of those companies, you might find it comforting to know that you're not alone; most wait until the 11th hour before they even start the process.

Is Succession Planning an Event or a Process?

Succession planning can be approached in two ways: As an event or a process. The event approach tends to be adopted by "11th hour leaders" who feel there's plenty of time before someone will be needed to fill their shoes. Company leaders tend to procrastinate when planning for successors for one of three reasons. First, they see succession planning as a luxury, not a necessity. Second, daily fire-fighting takes precedence over any activity that looks or feels like an "extra." And, third, but most important, these companies don't place a high premium on developing people, which is a critical aspect of succession planning.

The process approach is taken by those leaders who definitely see succession planning as part of a greater process—the process of developing people. These companies operate from the assumption that if you properly develop your people, you will have the talent available when replacements are needed. These leaders believe that development up the ladder of success means moving up the ladder when there's opportunity. They invest in training, coaching, and leadership development programs for their people at all levels in the organization. They see personal development as a necessity, not a luxury.

The Process Approach in Action

A manufacturing leadership team I've worked with for the past two years serves as a good example of the process approach to succession planning. Initially I was asked to facilitate team building with this leadership group because of ineffective communication. The internal conflict was not only draining the team's energy, it also was affecting the entire facility. Literally, everyone at the site knew of the leadership conflict. In fact, the conflict was having a negative impact on how direct reports were communicating with one another. The leaders were passing the negativity down the chain of command.

Leadership suspected that their behavior was having an impact on their direct reports, which served as motivation for them to address the communication problem. Through their team-building process, they began to have a better understanding of how influential there actually were. Larry Bossidy, who made the influence of leadership abundantly clear in his book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, included a quote from Dick Brown: "The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate. You change the culture of a company by changing the behavior of its leaders."

Not only did this leadership team find better ways to communicate with one another, but they also discussed and implemented a leadership development and succession planning process. The more collaborative they became, the greater their desire to find ways to pass their strategies on to the next level of leadership.

The first step was to create a cross-functional group comprising their direct reports. I was asked to work with this group as a part of the leadership development program. Through this process, the site leaders and their direct reports began to develop a leadership development/succession planning process that's unique to their specific leadership needs.

Critical Criteria for a Developmental Succession Process

Make sure the leadership team's "house" is in order; be the example necessary for future leaders. Before beginning the succession planning process, evaluate your leadership team's health. Consider these questions:

  • What does it mean to be results-orientedas a leader?
  • What character traits do you want in leadership?
  • What behavioral traits are important to leadership?
  • What people skills are evident in successful leadership?

If your leadership team is not clear on the desirable characteristics, identifying them is the place to start succession planning. A recent analysis of data by HR Solutions Inc. found that an astonishing 50 percent of employees responded affirmative when asked the following question: "I thought of resigning in the last six months." One of the biggest reasons for this trend, as cited by 18 percent, was "My Supervisor/Manager."

Determine whether succession planning is an event or a process. If it's an event, use this information as insights for selecting successors. If you decide it's a process, then focus on how to develop your employees. In Bossidy's book, he states, "The foundation of a great company is the way it develops people … 40 percent of a leader's time and emotional energy, in one form or another, needs to be devoted to selecting, appraising, and developing people."

Create strong training, coaching, and leadership development programs. Make leadership development a necessity, not a luxury.

Find the Right People

Find successors who have the potential for bigger shoes than yours. Hire and surround yourself with people you believe can and will surpass your accomplishments. Do not pick a carbon copy of yourself or someone who can "fill your shoes." If you believe you are securing the future of the company by selecting and developing the right people, make sure you choose those who can surpass your wildest dreams of success.

Look for a broad spectrum of characteristics from a continuum that spans execution of tasks to the ability to build strong relationships. A few to consider are:

  • Task-and results-oriented
  • Possesses high self-esteem and personal confidence
  • At ease with both superiors and subordinates
  • Possesses people skills; accepts people as they are and knows how to build relationships
  • Can make mistakes, admit them, correct them, and learn from them
  • Has a clear set of personal values that are practiced daily
  • Exhibits maturity—not necessarily in age, but in behavior
  • Knows how to check ego at the door

Put on Your Coaching Hat

Become the coach or mentor in the leadership development/successor process. One of the more important things subordinates have said to me is, "My leader/manager doesn't spend any time with me." If you want successful future leaders, you need to spend time coaching and mentoring. The best leaders make time for their future leaders.

Set Priorities

Make personal growth and alignment to the organization needs a priority. For leaders the emphasis needs to be placed on personal development. The more a leader understands how important personal development is, the more effective a leader he or she will become. Commenting on personal development, Warren Bennis said, "What is true for leaders is … we are our own raw material. Only when we know what we're made of and what we want to make of it can we begin our lives—and we must do it despite an unwitting conspiracy of people and events against us." Second to this is aligning those qualities to the needs of the organization.


Communicate succession planning and strategies to high-potential employees. Some controversy exists about sharing their successor status with them. In a 2003 Corporate Leadership Council Survey of 276 organizations, 62 percent said, "No, do not inform individuals of successor status." Thirty-eight percent said, "Yes, do inform individuals."

Personally, I believe being open about successor status encourages and motivates high-potential candidates.

Some other things to consider in succession planning are:

  • Prioritize and develop metrics to measure the priorities.
  • Create methods to show appreciation and reward people for their efforts and achievements.
  • Choose candidates who:

    Know the business and are realistic in their approach to business.

    Are able to deal with the difficulties of the business and communicate the brutal facts to the boss and subordinates.

    Work constantly to develop leadership skills and style; workshops and developmental programs such as those offered by The Center for Creative Leadership are effective growth mechanisms. Leadership behavioral profiles can be valuable tools. Birkman International offers an excellent profile.

    Can work effectively with a wide range of people.

    Know how to maintain high personal energy and to build energy into the entire organization.

Let me close with this quote from Harry Firestone; "It's only as we develop others that we permanently succeed."

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Bob Rausch, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

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