Knowing How And When To Make Way For Your Successor

Aug 14, 2015 1 Min Read
How Do You Find Your Successor?

Finding the right “replacement guy” is the biggest challenge for leaders in succession planning

Charles De Gaulle, once leader of the French nation, had something very interesting to say on the topic of value and leadership: “The graveyards are full of indispensable men”.

This would go on to be the military adage “if you can’t be replaced, you can’t get promoted”.

As a young professional moving into the lowest ranks of middle management (or, as I like to think of it, junior leadership), the gap between each step in the chain is difficult to bridge.

Therefore, adaptability, flexibility and mental and emotional preparation are all immensely important during the process.

The truth is, success looks very different when you’re trying to be a leader. All the rules get turned on their heads.

1. Being indispensable is a bad thing

If you’re doing well at your job right now, it probably looks a lot like getting a tonne of positive feedback from your bosses and hopefully, your peers, about how they just couldn’t run the place without you.

You have a solution for every problem, an answer to every question and you know who to talk to to get things done.

Why it might hold you back

In workplaces, there is a term called “firefighters”. They’re the workplace heroes who step in when things fall apart and make everything better again. They put out the fires. And everyone loves firefighters.

But as De Gaulle said (weren’t you listening earlier?), the same qualities that make you a good firefighter also make you very difficult to replace.

If there’s fear that performance will dip when you go or that the team isn’t equipped to go on without you, management will have no choice but to delay your progression.

Eventually you may even feel you’re not being given opportunities and try to move on, all the time unaware that you’re lying in a bed you made.

What you should do instead

If you recognise that your working group has deficiencies you’re plugging, build a better plug!

Simple ideas are to create better procedures, checklists, FAQs and ways of working that make the job easier for the team and facilitate sharing of knowledge amongst peers.

When you go on holiday, nobody should even notice.

This is a win-win. Your team is stronger than before, and you’ve gained experience doing something every leader needs to be able to do – building a stronger team.

2. Working really hard only gets you so far

People seem to have this notion that if they take on lots of work and do lots of compensatory hours, they will prove their usefulness and move ahead in the world.

If you look around your office right now, I’m sure you can see a peer or manager who does this. They’re sending emails at 11pm, not to show off, but because they’re just, that busy.

Why it might hold you back

When you are really busy it means you are spending a lot of your time doing something very unproductive – working! The problem is, the most you can possibly work is 24 hours per day.

Even if we scale it back to something more realistic like, say, 14 hours for our hardest workers, I guarantee that this whole time isn’t spent being productive. That’s just not how human beings work.

What you should do instead

If you want to be a manager, let alone a leader, you need to invest your time in something far more important – people.

You need to understand the people you work with and help each and every one of them develop the skills they need not only to do their job well, but to do your job one day!

You should be giving out assignments that stretch people and teach them new skills, working with them on training plans, helping them get better at things they’re bad at and using the things they’re good at for success.

Delegating blindly won’t achieve much, but when used as a precision tool, with the delegatee’s best interests at heart, you will build a group of people capable of achieving more than any of you thought possible. And that’s how you get ahead.

3. Success is not a zero-sum game

You don’t have to look far for examples in your own life of someone taking credit for someone else’s work. It’s depressingly common and it may very well have happened to you.

People can also be more subtle, by denying information and knowledge others need to find their own successes.

Why it might hold you back

This kind of thinking (that if I can starve everyone else of oxygen then I can be better than them) is of course, toxic and harmful to your career.

The problem is, it certainly brings short-term rewards and people do tend to feel good once they’ve burnt everything around them and ascended to be king of the ashes.

It’s only a matter of time before it catches up with you though, and hitting your head on a ceiling really hurts.

What you should do instead

The single most important thing you should do is find a successor and teach them. Are you the best in your team? Make someone else the best.

Are you a supervisor? Make sure someone else can supervise as well as you. And on and on it goes.

In conclusion

No matter where you are in your career, the things that make you valuable now will fade into irrelevance very quickly once you become a manager, and before you can look after a larger group of people, you must have your priorities in order.

Five years ago, I just made sure I was the best. Nowadays, I don’t need to be the best. I just need to make sure the people around me are the best, give them room to grow and make sure there’s a healthy mix of stress and achievement in their lives.

Share success, work on people rather than tasks, and make sure someone good is waiting to replace you, and the world will be your oyster.

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Tags: Succession Planning

Christopher Moore is an Australian finance professional formerly based in Malaysia, who can eat spicy food. His passion is people and finding ways to make a lasting difference.

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