Succession Planning from the Bottom Up

Why is it when we hear the words “Succession Planning” do we automatically focus on only the CEO?  Granted this is the pin point of the top of the pyramid, but without a solid base the top of the pyramid doesn’t amount too much.  When the ancient pyramids were built, they didn’t start at the top, but at the basement level.

In fact, just to take the pyramid concept a step further, the architects had very detailed and thoughtful plans in place before they began laying the first brick, and these structures are still in place today.  If they had concentrated on only the very top of the structure, we would not have the opportunity to see and touch these monuments today.

Succession Planning is a process by which we build competencies in every employee so that they may support another.  If we are to only focus on a few “key positions” then the structure we are building we eventually fall and crumble.  Our organizations are only as good as the people we have working for us, and yet we often fail to have a comprehensive succession plan in place.  By our lack of planning, we become reactive and wait until someone resigns before we act.

Every employee that works for the organization needs to be able to perform their individual job function as well as possible.  As much as possible, it is preferred that every employee also is able to support at least one other job function.   

No two succession plans are the same, because the criteria for promotion and succession are tied to the company’s own culture.  But let’s be crystal clear, no company should be without a comprehensive succession plan that addresses the development needs of each role, and the requirements to assume a position.  By building your Succession Plan from the bottom up, nothing slips through the cracks for the top of the pyramid.  Design your plan with the assumption that your next CEO could come from any employee working for you today if that person develops the skills, attitudes and performance you are seeking. 

Succession Planning is often the function of the Human Resources Department because of their close ties with all management and employees.  Training is also a team member in this process as the annual strategic training plan needs to line up with the goals of the succession plan’s developmental needs.  Yet where a Succession Planning Committee is formed from all parts of the rank and file we see a sharing of the responsibilities for design and implementation.

The bottom line is this; by developing each person and each role in your succession plan you not only have an active pipeline of qualified people for future promotion, you have a very well run organization until succession is required.

What’s Wrong with Burning a Few Bridges?

Conventional wisdom tells us to never burn a single bridge in our professional lives because you never know when you might need that relationship again.  I firmly believe that there are going to be circumstances and people who nearly require you to burn the bridge so you will never need to work with those people again.

I’ve been working for the past 35 years and I initially followed conventional wisdom and did whatever it took to part ways on a positive note.  There are times when the reason I was leaving was more than a promotional opportunity, more money, or a shorter commute.  These are all the generally softer ways of giving notice.  They are often spoken in truth, but many times they are used to cover up the real reasons to avoid burning bridges.

As time progressed, I thought it would improve circumstances if I shared the issues that caused me to consider other opportunities, more money or a shorter commute.  I had candid conversations with Human Resources during exit interviews, explaining the challenges with processes and particular personalities that cause concern and issues in the workplace.  I have spent the past 22 years in learning development, so my core was telling me that people can’t improve until they know that there is a performance gap.

Looking back, I would say that each of those times when I was honest and doing what I thought was helpful, I burned a bridge.  I’m not talking about toasting the wood a little; I’m talking about a five-alarm fire, nothing but ashes when I left.  There was no walking back over that puppy after I was finished burning it.  The people I left behind never spoke with me again, and I’m left to wonder if that is really such a bad thing?

Out of the dozen or so people who would sooner slit their throat then say hello to me, I have to be honest doesn’t bother me in the least.  These were folks that the word ethical wasn’t even in their dictionary.  Underhanded, manipulative, rude and down right mean are better descriptors of their personalities.  I hated working for them at the time, and after leaving I felt a rush of relief at never having to work with them again.  Although it was not my intention to burn a bridge with these people, the fact remains that I did, and the primary benefit was to never hear from them again.

When they say we are only separated by about six people from each other at most, (six degrees of separation), it does cause a reduction in referrals and future contacts that might cause these people to question if they should begin a working relationship with you.  Recently I suffered the opposite of that type of disconnect when someone contacted an old manager to find out what kind of training professional I am and what it would be like to work with me.

I know that this must have been this guy’s dream come true to work his magic by telling this new contact what a nightmare I would be to work with.  He said, “Jim is a purist when it comes to training and needs to do everything the right way.  He plays by the rules and Joan of Arc has nothing on him when it comes to ethics.  It makes it challenging to work around him because he is such a goody two shoes.”

Well thanks to these comments, I have a new client that shares my servant leadership style and ethical code.  What my old manager was trying to do was clue in his friend to how difficult it will be to work with a person like me, and at the same time selling the attributes the new client was looking for in a working relationship.

Now I will be the first to admit this situation was a fluke.  Most of the time when you burn a bridge that person will have a negative influence over anyone asking about you, not to mention that they themselves will never work with you again.  When I began consulting 6 years ago I was heart-broken that a particular person wasn’t giving me the time of day or throw me a bone’s worth of business.  At first I struck it up to the fact that he was still angry that I resigned and my replacement was not producing the same results I had.  I had watched this guy lash out at others that left before I did and his vindictive nature was well on display most of the time.  It should have been no surprise to me that I was getting the same cold shoulder, but it did.

This manager and I worked well together and although it was a strained relationship initially, over time I figured out his style and met those needs in my work performance.  He was angry over my leaving because as he said, “I don’t want you to go.”  I had a difficult time explaining why I was being called to strike out on my own and go from a reliable income to complete uncertainty as a self-employed consultant.  While financially it was not the best decision I’ve ever made, it has brought me innumerable benefits I would not have collected if I had remained.

One of these benefits has been the realization that burning a bridge forces you to find another route.  Without the easy ability to rely on old relationships to fund my new consulting business, I was forced to find new relationships early on and not wait until after the well went completely dry.  In some cases caustic people who I hated to work with in past jobs will no longer be a part of my future.  These folks will never again poison my spirit or cause me undo irritation because I need their job or as a client.

While I might have gone along with conventional wisdom in my early working years and left no bridge unburned, I’m glad to look back at a few I burned on purpose and realize that it was for my benefit that I can no longer connect with those people again.

What bridges have you burned in the past that you are glad you did?What bridges are still in place that should have been burned down?What do you think is wrong with burning a few bridges?

[Originally posted at on 2/17/12]

Knott Into Service!

My wife and I married 25 years ago today.  On our first anniversary we stayed at the hotel next to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA and spent the following day at the theme park.  For our 25th anniversary we thought it might be cool to repeat that day.

The hotel is now owned by Knott’s Berry Farm, and the memories came flooding back because nothing seemed to have changed in the past years.  The rooms were still drab and showing wear and tear, and the staff was just as cold and impersonal as before.

We went to dinner at the Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant and had a very busy waitress that was trying to be in too many places at the same time.  The food was not bad, but not that good either.

Today we went to the park, and it was not crowded at all.  Although the rides we looked forward to going on were closed, we did find a few to occupy a few hours.  What was obvious was the lack of attention by any staff person under the age of 60.  The older generation was thanking us for being their, but the remainder seemed bored to tears.

The exception was a young man named Daniel who worked the Calico Train Ride.  He was into his character, smiles for everyone (all 6 of us on this train) and a unique pleasure to be around.

What occurred to us, and what caused our trip to be shorter was that the expectations for customer service are either not trained or not reinforced by management.  In my words, they were Knott Into Service.  After awhile, we just got tired of being treated without regard and left.

What a shame, with the direct competition of Disneyland down the road that Knott’s Berry Farm is allowing this kind of, or really lack of service to develop and flourish.  I completed the evaluation before writing this blog.  I wonder if either will be read, and more importantly if anything will change.

How Good Is Your Vision?

Anyone that wears glasses or contacts will tell you that each year the eye exam becomes harder to deal with if the aging process is contributing to your loss of vision.  Oh, sure you can see the eye chart with enough magnification, but I can tell you I get tired of hearing, “well your vision is about the same as last year, just a little change is noted.”  Oh goody, it is getting worse.

Now eye sight is something we cannot control a whole lot and our vision today is no doubt not as good as it was 10 years ago.  Yet the word vision is often used to describe the future of a team, group or company.  Some people even have personal vision statements but they all describe what we are shooting for sometime in the future.

A good friend of mine is in the mortgage lending business, and is a goal oriented leader.  He strives on pulling everything together to meet or exceed expectations.  He has always operated on a vision for where you are headed and he had me laughing last week after he told me why he quit working for his last company.

He told me that the lack of communication up, down, and all around was difficult enough to operate in, but it was the lack of vision for this 30-year-old company that was just too much to deal with any longer.  He told me, “when your vision statement only looks out until sometime this afternoon, it is impossible to make rational decisions even in the morning.”

While the crust of his concerns is no laughing matter, you have to wonder how many companies actually operate like this all year-long.  Without a vision, how would anyone know where you are headed and make decisions to get the people and processes to that point?

When I ask the question “How Good is your Vision?” I am talking about how far out are you focused.  Are you looking past this afternoon, end of the week or month, or are you actually thinking about the entire year, and 5-10 years from now.

It is another topic of how well you communicate your vision to team members, but if you can’t see past the end of the nose on your face you really have no hope of succeeding, and neither does any member on the team. 

My friend is now seeking another job.  I asked him if he had different questions this time he would ask during the interviewing process.  He said he never asked a lot in the past about where the company was headed, but that he realized if they don’t know when they are interviewing, then they have no reason to be hiring either.

So how good is your vision in the role you play in your company?

Ready, Set, Resign!

Whether you call it quitting, leaving or resigning, the fact remains that when an employee tells you, usually you have little or no chance to change their minds.  The damage is done, and you have lost this employee.

Now I realize that sometimes we are jumping for joy that this particular employee will be history, but most of the time, and for the purpose of this blog today, we are going to focus on the folks we wish we could have kept.

I was listening to a talk radio show on a drive the other day, and I can’t be sure of the exact percentage, but I think it was somewhere around 25% of all currently employed people are chomping at the bit to find another job as soon as the economy improves.  Depending on your political leanings, you either think that is right around the corner or years away.  The timing though is future, but the problem is current.

You see the main reason for this employee unrest translates to “the way the employer is treating the employee.”  Current employees feel overworked, under trained, and unappreciated.  Employers point to a bad economy that prevents new hires, and spending money on training or things that make people feel valuable.

Given that the cost of replacing any employee is equivalent to a year’s salary, give me a break that there is no money to invest in the current employee to improve your employer-employee relationship.

While it may be difficult to bring on more full-time staff to ease the workload, if people are overworked, then there is enough work to hire part-time, or contractors to ease the pressure.

Training is one of the most valuable things you can do to improve your working relationship and the bonus is a better developed employee who usually is grateful to the company that developed them.  Hey, it may sound a little like blackmail, but employees are more loyal to companies that invest in them.

As for appreciation, may I suggest the cost-effective use of the words – “Thank You” once in a while.  You may not have the money to buy everyone a new car (like that happens often) but you do have tools to make employees feel appreciated and valuable.

Or, you can simply continue to ignore the problems, and bone up on your own interviewing skills.  Either to replace your resigning employees, or to get a better job yourself!