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Management Succession Starts at the….Bottom

(from Central PA Business Journal, 4/5/19)

Today, the phrase management succession plan is used almost exclusively in the context of an exit strategy, part of preparing an organization to replace top executives who will leave, retire or die.

But, especially in this time of high turnover, management succession at all levels needs to be as critical to an organization as bench strength is to a sports roster. Every sports team knows who is playing what position in the event of an injury or trade. Without that depth chart, senior executives would spend more time fighting fires than on strategy and long-term planning.

Investment in back-up quarterbacks, for example, is extremely high among football organizations because the starter is “always only one hard hit from the bench” (see Super Bowl 52, or Foles, Nick).

A change in ownership may happen once — or possibly twice — in the life of a company. But turnover at the first-line and middle management level happens all the time, and that trend is not going to change soon. Unfortunately, some common responses to a supervisor’s or manager’s resignation include:

  • Panic and despair (“Oh, no.”)
  • Offer the employee more money to stay (buying you time, but not loyalty)
  • Pay others overtime (burdening employees while spending too much)
  • Advertise online (takes time, effort and prayer)

These negative reactions can be avoided with a company culture of career path and promoting-from-within, leading to a state of affairs in which much of the hiring need can be at the lower, easier-to-find-and-train level.

In the high-turnover world of big-box, national chain retailing, where I spent many years, we gave a lot of time and attention to, and were aware of, “who was next up” for any management position.  Both human resources and top management knew of these high-potential employees, who had not only expressed interest in upward mobility, but who had also been given individual training programs to ready themselves for those moments.

One boss gave me this great advice: “Every month, look around and make sure that the business will run just as well on the day after any manager leaves.”

Here’s how it should work:

Manufacturing supervisor Rick announces that he’s leaving to get his degree. Part of every supervisor’s annual review has included getting at least one of the machine operators prepared for promotion. An operator in another part of the plant, Jill, has had access to supervisor reports and has attended meetings with her supervisor. Jill can be promoted, shadow Rick for a week, and, with proper mentoring, have high odds of success. Because of this continual company process, HR is, therefore, constantly looking for potential new hires to be entry-level floor operators — who will also become “the bench.”

The above process is repeated at every level of the company. The newly-promoted employees will still have learning curves, of course; but because they are already employees, there is much less chance of their not fitting in to the company culture. They also become models to the rest of their peers —proof that the company cares about its own employees and prefers to promote from within.

Once a philosophy like this is in place, managers manage better, too. They can concentrate on motivation and development instead of moving from personnel crisis to personnel crisis.

And managers can lead from strength instead of from fear: It is just human nature to coach or discipline differently depending on the answer to “Can I afford to make this employee uncomfortable right now?” A problem employee with no potential successor knows that he has leverage.

Again, another sports metaphor: coaches often say that depth at a position pushes both athletes to perform better, because one is “looking behind” and knows she is not irreplaceable, and the other wants to prove himself and be ready.

A total organization commitment to creating bench strength and a depth chart leads to a culture of career-laddering, employee development, retention and success (again, see Super Bowl 52, or Foles, Nick).