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Bursts of Color - Succession (Planning)
I have been enjoying the final season of Succession, so I smiled at this post from my old friend and boss Kip Knight:
While we all eagerly await the final episode of "Succession," there is another type of succession you should never have to wait for - that's for your own company. I have seen the incredible value of thoughtful development plans and talent reviews in the companies I've worked at....and I've seen what happens when succession plans are not put in place or are inadequate (cue the somber and morose music).
Why Think About Succession at a Startup?
Kip’s post is a great reminder. A startup leadership team is a bit like a sporting roster in that churn is part of the business and we have to plan for it. Sure, we might occasionally get that perfect person to stay for 5-10 years, but in most cases, 2-4 years is a good solid run, and we have to build the team accordingly.
Hopefully none of your functional leaders will literally get "hit by a bus." But folks do tend to step back for all kinds of reasons, from scary and urgent (indefinite leave starting today for a medical crisis) to less so (decided to try grad school, leaving in two months) and everything in between.
A Lightweight Approach to Succession Planning
You don’t need a big, established company to have a succession plan. In fact, several experienced HR friends have shown me a very easy way to get started.
As in the example below, we simply look at each key leader on the org chart and think about what to do if they disappear… and then rate our readiness with one of these colors:
Green - Backup leader identified (often the #2 person in that group), trained and ready for the bigger role ASAP.
Yellow - Imperfect backup plan ready - e.g., a known consultant or more junior person could take this on as an interim role.
Red - No backup plan. Would have a vacancy and need to start a brand new search, so would surely lose 6-12 months.
Other Suggestions for This Exercise
This should not be time-consuming. Think 60 minutes or less.
Do this with a highly trusted confidante, like a co-founder. It helps to talk these things through aloud, but you want to keep the circle small.
Write down the results, but keep them to yourself and do not share copies. There is no upside to this floating around.
You may wish to share the results with your board, but again, do it live and don't distribute copies.
Refresh this every 3-12 months (more established companies = less often).
While this is aimed at company-level planning, the same concept and approach can work for any group manager.
What To Do With the Results
Of course the point of the exercise is to gradually do something about the weak points we’ve identified…
Green - Make sure we're cultivating that backup person to keep them happy and engaged.
Yellow - Solidify the backup plan to ensure it's real if needed (e.g, if you are counting on a consultant, when’s the last time you talked to them).
Red - Work on getting a backup plan! In the meantime, try to keep a very open line of communication with this person to reduce the risk of surprises.
* Founders Are Different
In most cases I would not bother succession planning for the primary founder/CEO unless there is some known issue or expected departure. Founder-led startups are a lot like family businesses. And as with the fictional Roy family, speculating far in advance about who will inherit the throne… does not always bring out the best in people.