What Happens If You're Hit By a Bus? A Guide to Succession Planning.
Succession planning isn't just for managers, and it isn't just a red tape process to fill out. It's a core element of career growth for everyone.
Hey all! I shared recently on LinkedIn that I had figured out how to download my paid analytics for the first time. It was cool to discover which articles encouraged the most people to become subscribers. Previously, I had just blindly glanced at my MRR (monthly recurring revenue) and said things like, "Oh, jolly good. I'm chuffed." I said that because I watched all the episodes of the Great British Baking Show. Everyone's always chuffed on that show.
Anyway, before I got into today's article, I wanted to share the Top 10!
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Today I wanted to talk a bit about succession planning. Now, before you click away because you're not a manager, or you feel this isn't applicable to you—it's my intention to show you that it's applicable to just about everyone.
I was hired years ago to build an engineering organization for Kids Devices. The existing engineering group was tiny, and the business was growing quickly. If nothing changed regarding growth or profitability, I knew we'd need to grow quickly for the next few years.
While I did help the existing managers accelerate their engineer hiring, I made one particular hire my top priority. My successor.
Now, I'd just been hired into the group. I was surely going to be there at least a few years. Why would my first hire need to be my successor? Well, I'll get to that a bit later.
I hired my future successor as one of my first hires. Around three years later, I was promoted to Director, took a leave of absence, and my successor took over (and has since been promoted to Director). All went according to plan. Part of that was luck, and part of that was careful planning. And I'm going to share how you too can do some careful planning.
What is succession planning?
The simplest succession planning is naming your successor. "In the event I'm hit by a bus, Hector should take over."
The problem with this is that naming your successor is the output of a carefully choreographed process if you're doing things correctly. If Hector doesn't know how to do your job, why should he take over?
Succession planning is not about naming someone. It's about the process to get someone ready to take over your role. A longer (and proper) version of that succession plan statement should be:
"As a result of months or perhaps years of work, Hector is ready to take over my job in the event something happens to me. He already knows everyone, they know him, and he's done all aspects of my job at least a few times."
So that being said, here's how I'd explain succession planning:
Your successor knows everyone you rely on to do your job well.
You have to post marketing images on the Amazon retail site. Your successor needs to know who you rely on to get those images created. You have to get a last-minute code change pushed to production. Your successor needs to know who has to sign off on the change.
One hard thing about taking over someone's job is figuring out who are their trusted partners in doing that job.
Your successor is known by those who rely on you.
Your peer engineering manager, who frequently partners with you on engineering tasks. Your QA manager, who tests all your team's code. Your principal engineer, who does the design reviews for most engineers. These people know you, and trust you. It will be difficult to succeed you successfully if these people don't know your successor.
Earning trust from scratch is a large challenge of taking over someone's job.
Your successor has done all aspects of your job.
You regularly write a weekly report on your team's operational events. You update the ad designs to include the current sale prices for your products. You give verbal presentations to your leadership team.
Your successor shouldn't do your jobs for the first time when you're gone.
Who should care about succession planning?
Here's the tricky thing. Everyone should care.
If you are senior enough to be relied upon to do complex work (that would take time for someone else to figure out), you should be doing succession planning. You can't be trusted to take on more important work, if you're a single point of failure. A smart, critical employee who happens to be the only one who knows how to do a variety of stuff is valuable, but it's not the type of person you want to promote. They're the type of person you want to keep doing the exact job they're doing.
You can't take on more complex and more exciting work if you're busy with your existing work. When opportunities arise, you want to be able to quickly and easily hand off your other responsibilities. That can only be done if you were thinking of succession planning early.
If you're interested in growing your career and will want someone else to take over your job someday (so you can do a bigger one), you should be doing succession planning. Everyone knows the saying, "If you're irreplaceable, you can't be promoted."
If you're interested in taking over someone else's job someday, you should be helping them do succession planning. Oooh, what do I mean by that?
Succession planning means that there's a successor in mind. If you want to be the successor, the steps necessary are often the mirror image of what I recommend for making succession plans.
I had a mentee at Amazon who wanted to take over their Senior Manager's job. They were frustrated though because their manager wouldn't give them a bigger team.
"My manager keeps suggesting I take over her project review meeting, and maybe attend her Director's monthly review in her place. It's just the grunt work she doesn't want to do. I just want her to give me another team."
I had to shake some sense into him.
"Dude." (yes, I say dude sometimes) "Your boss is offering you a chance to represent her entire org with her boss? You know that's textbook succession planning right? She's handing you a growth opportunity on a silver platter, and you're calling it grunt work?!"
As a senior leader, it's astonishing how hard it can be to find someone willing to be your replacement. Almost no one volunteers for the job. Yet, it's the most reliable way to become the default succession plan. Instead, everyone's clamoring for the shiny project, or new headcount. No one wants to put in the work. Or perhaps, they don't realize what the work is.
When should you do succession planning?
The answer is immediately, yesterday, right away.
Keep in mind the 3 components of succession planning. The successor needs to know the important contacts, everyone needs to know the successor, and the successor has to be experienced in all aspects of the job.
This takes time. It takes concerted effort. As a leader, you would rather not start this process when you're thinking about quitting in a few months. As an employee wanting to get ahead, you would rather not start setting yourself up as the successor once you hear your manager is on their way out.
When making your own succession plan, always be thinking of how to make yourself redundant.
"I am in charge of this weekly report. How do I ensure that someone else can do this?"
"I'm always working with the recruiting team to fill our open positions. How do I ensure that someone else on my team can do this?"
You'll know you're successful if vacation planning involves simply pointing people at the right successor, rather than writing up instructions for someone.
Similarly, you need to think of how you can be the succession plan of your manager (if that's what you're interested in).
"My manager looks like they're busy. I wonder what work they'd appreciate being taken off their hands."
"I noticed my manager does that bug review every week. I should figure out how I could take that over for them."
You'll know you're successful if your manager begins to leave tasks with you, instead of taking them back when they're less busy.
How do you identify a successor?
This is perhaps the trickiest thing, and I can't help you a ton there.
If you have a big job or organization, it's possible that your answer will be two different people. If it makes sense, you can certainly split your responsibilities into two succession plans.
If your team is all too junior / inexperienced to succeed you, you'll have two major choices. You can hire someone more experienced. Or you can train someone.
Hiring someone more experienced (if possible) works well. It can ruffle feathers if someone junior was hoping to take over your job, but it's necessary sometimes. Think carefully about the type of person you want to hire. You'll be delegating a lot of your work to them, so you need to respect their abilities.
Training people on the team is preferable if it's possible. They're going to be trusted by the existing team. They'll be excited to be given an opportunity for growth. Plus, since succession planning takes a while, even a junior employee can grow into the role with enough time.
Do you tell the successor that they're your successor?
Are you relatively certain they'll be your successor, and you'll be leaving someday in the not distant future? Then yes. I think everyone benefits from knowing what will happen. Your successor will do better if they put themselves in the mental space of being you in the future. Your peers and partners will work with your successor better (and give you better feedback) if they know your plans.
Otherwise, I think a more vague reference to career / personal growth is a safer way to approach this. "I'd like you to learn how to take over this task because it'd be for you to have this visibility / skill / experience."