Planning Your Own Funeral

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Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people. —Peter Strople

This is what one leader told me it felt like when he was asked to identify a potential successor for his role. True story!  He went on to explain that sure, both activities will give comfort to the people around you, but it doesn’t feel so great knowing how things will end up for you.

I get it!  This person was a very good leader. He had great leadership skills and experience, and still had plenty of career ahead of him.  However, at the same time, he was being told that he needed to help identify future leaders for the organization – specifically someone who might have potential to replace him someday. He didn’t feel he had a choice, so begrudgingly he agreed.  

That’s human!  I imagine that he did a gut check and the thought of identifying his replacement didn’t feel so good. I know he probably also did a talent check and that picture probably didn’t look so good either. After all, who would have the experience and knowledge that he had? Comfortable with his assessment, this person let his leader know that although he had many talented employees (what else could he say… he hired them), he just couldn’t see how any of them could possibly replace him.  He recommended to management that when that time came to refill his position, the company would need to hire from outside the company. 

I am sure that at some point after that, this person was reminded that identifying future leaders from inside the organization is not only less expensive than hiring from outside, but it increases engagement, commitment, and retention of high potential employees who could be leading our company someday – and he was asked to take a closer look. 

So, what if this leader was you? Where would you start? Here are some things for you to consider…

  1. Identifying a potential successor is a great opportunity for you. As you develop that person, you can delegate some of what you do, allowing you to develop new skills and take on new and exciting opportunities to personally grow.
  2. If you’re not having regular career conversations with employees – start now.  Make sure you know who of your high performing employees aspire to higher levels of leadership.  It’s fine if they don’t. You need as many high performers as you can hold on to.  If they do have aspirations for leadership, further discussions need to take place to learn more.
  3. No matter what the leadership level, understand that nobody will ever be 100% ready for their next role. Just like anything new, a leader can receive training and have a high level of knowledge and training for a role, but they will need immersion in the role for a period of time to be effective.
  4. Recognize past performance is not the only thing you should be evaluating when considering an employee’s future potential as a leader. Do you understand how your organization defines high potential? Are there specific behaviors and achievements required to be promoted to higher levels? Are objective and reliable methods to assess potential in place?

Perhaps you work for an organization that is new at this and doesn’t have much guidance to help you identify future leaders. If so, I recommend you look at an employee’s leadership presence… even if the person is not currently in a leadership role.  Why?  Because presence is a pretty good indicator of future performance in positions of greater responsibility. It’s also something you can spot if you know what to look for. Below is a list of questions you can ask when considering a high performer as a potential future leader. You may not have observed behavior that allows you to answer all of the questions, but if you can answer yes to at least half of them, you may have identified your future leader!

Ask yourself if this person…

  • demonstrates values that align with my organization?
  • speaks with a level of confidence, clarity, and passion in a variety of casual and formal business settings?
  • takes on tasks where they can leverage their unique strengths to impact and influence?
  • recognizes their own blind spots and actively works around them?
  • leverages their emotional intelligence to adjust to a variety of situations?
  • takes ownership for results – good and bad?
  • connects authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others?
  • shares their thinking and opinion with confidence and respect?
  • has trusted relationships at multiple levels of the organization?
  • effectively steps into informal leadership roles when needed?

Please know this is a list of questions I created based on my experiences. You may want to use these as a starting point in creating questions that work best for you.

And now I think back to the conversation with the leader who compared identifying his potential successor to planning his own funeral. If I was quicker to respond, I would have acknowledged that was definitely one (albeit a little morbid) way to look at it.  But just like his life will undoubtedly leave a legacy for his family, he now has the opportunity to create a leadership legacy that can impact people long after he leaves his company.

Here’s to your leadership journey (legacy)!

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