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10 effective ways to create a leadership succession culture

Image courtesy of Brands & People on Unsplash

Thinking about the principles that underpin leadership succession, there is probably no better analogy than the cyclical process of sowing, cultivating, harvesting and sowing. Like any good farmer or gardener, employers need to sift, sort and identify the right candidates for leadership develop. There follows an intensive process of nurturing and mentoring, which should ultimately lead to maturity and succession.

Taking this analogy one step further, the virtuous cycle continues when the ‘seeds’ from the ‘harvest’ (ie: the examples from those who have matured into leadership) are used to shape the next generation of leaders. The underpinning message here is simple: when planning for leadership succession, if you know what you are sowing, then you will know what you are growing.

Whilst this makes sense as a working assumption and basic principle, what about the core components to stand up the theory? Well, set out below are 10 effective ways to create a leadership succession culture.

1. Cascade philosophy and ideology

Here’s a test for those who run businesses with employees: if anyone were to ask one of your employees to describe the leadership philosophy or ideology, would they be able to summarise it in a sentence or two? Unfortunately, whilst that may be possible in some cases, it is probably less likely in others — especially in much larger organisations. Yet, the philosophical and ideological cascade of leadership values is essential to leadership succession. If your employees do not understand and own what you stand for, how can they act in the image of what you represent? Knowledge of an organisation’s leadership philosophy must be reflected in both breadth (across hierarchical layers) and depth (between hierarchical layers).

2. Widen the circle of understanding

All too often, organisations see succession as purely a function of transition either up or across the hierarchy. Whilst these movements are clearly important, succession is a much more basic function of organisational effectiveness. Specifically, succession is about custodianship of knowledge, mainstreaming learning and safeguarding memory. Organisations that operate deftly in this space are better placed to avoid key person dependency and single point of failure. Not only that, but when an organisation demonstrates this wider understanding and approach, they make a pointed statement about ‘succession’ as a behaviour and organisational norm, rather than an event.

3. Protect the ‘vital organ’ of leadership functionality

Leadership is a ‘vital organ’. Just like any such organ, it must be protected. But here’s the rub, protecting leadership as a ‘vital organ’ does not mean giving leaders plausible deniability or hermetically sealing them from accountability. On the contrary, protecting leadership as a ‘vital organ’, means that employers must routinely stress test the robustness of their leadership function, to ensure its fitness for purpose. If organisations fail to do this, the ‘muscle’ of leadership will atrophy and the mechanism of succession will become dysfunctional. Protection of the ‘vital organ’ of leadership is a whole system responsibility of subordinates, peers and superiors.

4. Exercise ‘pruning power’

There is a reason why horticultural stores sell pruning shears. There is also a reason why pruning shears are sharp. The truth of the matter is that not everyone who is in a leadership position or being groomed for leadership, meets the standard to which they are held. There may be specific situations, where conduct needs to be addressed or where undesirable patterns of behaviour emerge which cannot be ignored. In such circumstances, ‘pruning’ may be required as an individual and personalised way to effect course correction. However, in a collective sense, the act of ‘pruning’ may require removing an individual from the group, if their continued presence may be detrimental to team cohesion. Let us be clear, ‘pruning’ is painful. But what is painful can also be positive.

5. Master the art of ‘horizontal’ and ‘diagonal’ succession

It is easy to think of succession as a vertical axis, where a subordinate succeeds their superior. That is the more common visualisation of the succession relationship. However, ‘horizontal’ and ‘diagonal’ models are equally important because they highlight the fact that succession is a multi-dimensional, not mono-dimensional construct. ‘Horizontal succession’, is not just about the subsumption of roles from one peer to another, but also the lateral cross-fertilisation and hybridisation of functions. ‘Diagonal succession’ meanwhile, is where organisations cultivate dynamic progression models, through which employees are equipped and empowered to ascend into leadership roles, irrespective of whether or not they are in the direct line of succession.

6. Randomly sample

I am a big fan of Victoria sponge cake. It is a simple treat comprised of layers of vanilla cream and jam filling, sandwiched between sponge and finished off with a light dusting of caster sugar. No matter how many slices of Victoria sponge that I eat (or serve) I would expect to find the same consistency of layers, ingredients and taste. That is how it should be when you slice through the layers of organisational leadership. Each layer should exhibit common characteristics as well as nuanced features. The roles of those in executive leadership should be as different from seniors as those of seniors are from juniors. Random sampling and cross-sectional confirmation are essential in proving the robustness of the leadership structure as well as the readiness of leaders to migrate up the leadership hierarchy.

7. Draw up a checklist, not a shopping-list

Clearly, there are times when organisations must look externally to recruit different types of leaders to address specific challenges or to further enhance existing leadership capabilities. It could be that the organisation is seeking an experienced crisis leader, a disruptor or just someone to boost ‘bench strength’. Irrespective, it is critical that they know what success will look like before they start the search. An organisation that ‘shops for leadership’ without knowing where it is deficient, demonstrates a dangerous lack of self-knowledge. Not only that, but because a good fit on paper, may not be the best fit in practice, they risk introducing potentially volatile and destructive components into the organisational bloodstream.

8. Teach leaders to be invisible

Invisibility is almost antithetical to the idea of effective leadership. Yet, in the context of leadership succession it is an absolute necessity. The next generation of your organisation’s leaders will not have space to grow if the current crop, function like weeds and choke off the development of those coming through. Healthy organisations see leadership like a revolving door, with talent coming in and going out. It should not be a one-way access, where the last person to go through the door can lock it behind them. For organisations to have an effective arrangement to replenish and replace their leaders, they must recognise that sometimes the biggest barrier to leadership succession are other leaders.

9. Value ‘followership’, but be vigilant of ‘fandom’

In leadership, ‘followership’ is healthy, whilst ‘fandom’ is not. In organisations where employees gravitate from professional accountability to their organisations, to a personal allegiance to individuals, the leadership environment is less like a culture and more like a ‘cult’. Whilst leaders should always be authentic in their presentation and respected in their roles, leadership succession is not a popularity poll. Therefore, the very notion of ‘hero worship’ of leaders runs counter to any notion of a healthy succession culture. Organisations that encourage or turn a blind eye to such practices, ultimately risk forgoing principle for populism.

10. Skip the next one to find the best one

I was watching a documentary recently in which it was said that Hilary Clinton had expected to become the 2008 Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. As it happens, Barack Obama won the nomination. But in the documentary, I was particularly struck by the reference to the idea that Hilary Clinton may have believed that it was ‘her turn’. The idea of leadership succession has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sentimentality and everything to do with suitability. Whilst relevant experience, skills and capabilities are critical factors in determining succession, there are occasions when these have to be weighted with other considerations. Organisations must never be seduced into thinking that succession is an entitlement.

The word succession is a powerful one. But contrary to how it may be perceived and understood, succession is not about what happens next it is about what happens first. With succession, there can be no transition without preparation and there can be no preparation without expectation. Fundamentally therefore, to create a leadership succession culture, organisations need to completely re-image how they view succession as a concept. It cannot simply be seen through the prism of one lens (ie: movement upwards). Rather, it must be seen as hyper-dynamic, with multiple facets and features, all of which are inter-connected and interdependent.



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Paul Aladenika

Paul Aladenika


Believer, blogger, mentor, student of leadership, social economist and thinker. Committed to empowering people to empower themselves and others.