As I have argued before, a few key people in every organization can make a huge difference on its success. Even for very large companies or even at a citywide level.
But that doesn’t forgive the CEO, the board or for that matter anybody in an organization from allowing weak links.
In fact, nearly every team work with I encourage them to think about succession planning in the event “that somebody gets hit by a beer truck.” I don’t know where I started using the phrase but it stuck.
I do know where I learned the lesson of succession planning – at 23 years old at Accenture. On my first project the partner on my job said, “to be successful you need to become irrelevant.”
“Well, your job is to build a team that quickly grows into taking on more of your responsibilities. That’s the fastest way to move up, when you’re not needed anymore.
Most managers spend all of their time controlling information and trying to protect their job by not sharing or not delegating.
You’ll always be small time if you work like that.”
That was engrained in me at a young age.
As a first-time CEO I took that to the next logical conclusion.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to “rise to the next level” as I wanted to be able to lead at a higher-level by having time to spend thinking about how to really propel the business forward rather than always having my nose buried in a spreadsheet or having to lead all of the big sales campaigns.
So I tried to build a team that could own my job functions.
Then my CTO quit.
I had assumed that my core team was with me until the end. And the CTO was a super close friend (and former roommate). I honestly had never considered that he would go so I didn’t spend enough time thinking about who would step into his role if he got hit by a beer truck.
Luckily we had been working with a contractor who then joined our team and had shown great leadership potential. I asked if he wanted the role and he grasped at it. Still, I had never actively thought about who would step into the role in a tough spot. I had never talked to my CTO about making sure he had no single-points-of-failure on his team – including himself.
From then on in we all talked about it. How did we cross-pollinate skill sets in case our lead DBA left? What happened if our front-end designer gave her notice? What happens if you get hit by a beer truck?
And ultimately when I decided after 6 years to leave the company I was easily able to hand over the keys and get “promoted” to being a board member.
This is hardest on an early-stage startup that only has 5-10 people – I get that. Perhaps redundancy isn’t possible at that level.
But when you begin to scale there is simply no excuse for not having succession planning of your direct reports and encouraging them to think about this within their own teams.
Besides, cross-pollinating skills is good for teams anyways.
And as a board it is of course our responsibility to ask the tough questions, too. All it takes is one critical departure in one organization I’m involved with to get the gentle reminder. Firefighting is never fun.
Photo Credit – Danny Smith on 500px