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The Real Importance of Succession Planning

Do you sense a lack of bench strength in your organization? Do you believe that when you head out the door, the excellence you insisted on during your watch will become a thing of the past? You aren’t alone in that; many senior managers, wanting to pass on their legacy, turn toward succession planning as a means of selecting the future leaders for their team.

While succession planning is intended for a number of good reasons, many chiefs see succession planning as only being necessary to ensure the continuation of critical processes once senior managers begin to vacate their positions. Replacing these individuals, however, is only one facet of succession planning—and a very limited view of it, I may add.

And while there is value in saying, “This is the way we budget,” or “These are the deadlines we need to meet annually,” a well-crafted succession plan is much more than that. A succession plan that’s worth your effort is one that reinforces your faith in the most important asset you have: your people, the next generation of your organizational leaders.

In an article on succession planning in the Harvard Business Review, Marshall Goldsmith said, “Plans do not develop anyone—only development experiences develop people.”

Considering only how we currently do things doesn’t respect the valuable perspective a fresh face brings to the table. By insisting, “This is how we do things,” we devalue others’ ingenuity and creativity, much of what probably prompted us to consider them as candidates for advancement to begin with.

There’s a very important part of mentoring these individuals while you’re still there. By challenging them to fulfill the new roles they may undertake, you can allow them to engage certain organizational issues, to form independent hypotheses and to seek answers that may not have been considered before, all while maintaining some control over the outputs and focusing them on the desired core values.

Effective succession planning is even more important in volunteer organizations where the departure of key individuals may doom the further growth or even survival of the department. When an organization leans hard on one individual for certain integral parts of its operations or its administration, one hiccup can prove to be catastrophic.

Especially in these economic times, if an organization has been dependent on a certain chief or any other officer to always be there, guess what happens when they aren’t? On a best-case scenario, someone else steps into that role. More often than not, however, service to the community falters or others struggle to fill the role and fail, causing turnover or, worse, collapse of the entire organization.

In any case, with the ensuing loss of confidence, especially in a public departure, much-needed funding and community support becomes problematic.

Again, bench strength should always be on your mind when considering the future. If you have someone you consider to be invaluable—so invaluable that they’ll leave a gaping hole when they decide to hang up their helmet—you’d better think now about developing someone to take their place before it’s too late.

This scenario takes into account a planned departure; it’s much the worse when a tragic loss occurs prematurely—this is what happened in our department.

If you truly care about the long-term health of your organization, looking at the people within makes solving that problem much easier. In addition to dealing with a known entity, if you want to develop loyalty to your leadership and buy-in to the departmental mission, give your subordinates the opportunity to shine by challenging them and giving them a stage to prove their worth. 

Even if a formal program is difficult to manage immediately, a great first step is to entrust certain projects to your charges, giving them the authority and responsibility to handle a portion of management. This may not be sufficient for an individual to ascend to the next level, but they begin to get their feet wet and understand the processes at work. And when they succeed, they’re not only rewarded for doing a great job; they’re also rewarded with experience and education.

Take a hard look at those you serve and understand that the greatest injustice you can hand them is the lack of confidence in their ability to go to bat when they get the chance. With you leading them and showing them where the hurdles on the path are, they’ll see you in a different light. Likewise, you can pride yourself in knowing that you led them to that new view at the top.

Michael “Mick” Mayers is the battalion chief for Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue and a member of the IAFC On Scene editorial advisory board.

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