Leadership succession is the responsibility of leaders. Executives cannot wait for others to do “succession planning,” because the risk of ignoring it is too great.

Ensuring that people are ready, willing and able to fill critical roles is not a once a year exercise, it should be a continuous process. Why isn’t it? Two reasons. First, the framework isn’t usually well defined. Second, the culture and organizational habits tolerate weak and ineffective practices. The questions below will help you evaluate what is happening in your organization.

  1. Are key roles identified?

    You’ll need three lenses:

    • Key executive roles such as chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer, etc.
    • Market-facing roles such as the head of marketing, sales, customer experience, etc.
    • Operational leaders: The people who make sure things get done day to day.

    Do you have these roles identified? Is there a rationale for each? Does that rationale hold up in the face of scrutiny? Imagine you are on Power Lunch!

  2. Are the criteria for naming successors clear?

    These categories are essential—

    • Good character
    • Business acumen
    • Leadership ability
    • Record of achievement (quantitative and qualitative)
    • Personal attributes and behavior

    You need a description of how each of these looks given your specific context (strategy, market, culture.)

  3. Are people named in the plan evaluated objectively?

    This is not the time for rumors, amateur psychoanalysis, personality tests or personal agendas. These questions should be answered:

    • What has the person achieved?
    • What are they like as a colleague?
    • Do they grow the talents and abilities of others?
    • Do they learn continuously and by their own volition?
    • Do they function well in ambiguous situations?
  4. Do you have an emergency plan as well as a longer term plan?

    You need to look at three points in time.

    • Now. In an emergency, who will step in?
    • Short-term — 18 months to 2 years.
    • Longer term — more than 2 years.
  5. What are you doing to help people grow?

    Helping people learn to run a business as it exists is one thing, but inadequate. In the future, your business won’t look like it does today. Your next generation needs more than knowledge, they need capacity to grapple with ambiguity. Absent that, they will fail either sooner or later.

    What are you teaching people deliberately and what are they learning by watching you?

  6. What does success look like? Do people learn and grow or is completion of a program considered success?

    Are you rewarding activities or outcomes?

  7. Is development of others/building the bench a criterion for senior leaders?

    Does each key person have at least two people in their own leadership pipeline? What are they doing to develop others? What evidence do you have that this is happening?

    If your Human Resources team isn’t helping you with the structure, you have a problem. If you aren’t engaged in continuous development of others, you are a problem.

    If you aren’t investing in your own development, your first move is to change that. The good news is, it is rewarding and of extreme value.

As the flight attendants say — Put your own oxygen mask on first.

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