Why Founders Can’t Afford to Have Any Weak Links

Posted on Sep 30, 2013 | 21 comments


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.

Weak Link

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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

Crap.

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

  • Rick Marro

    WoW – insightful – thank you

  • Reachli

    Great article, never really thought about it in that light of things, It is infact something everyone should plan for. A company is only as good as the people who are it are.

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    Indeed, succession plans are another form of insurance, if that makes it any easier to think about. “Bob, we need to talk about your Beer Truck Insurance…”

  • http://blog.atomicinc.com Avi Deitcher

    “Beer Truck Insurance”. Well, if you’re going to go, better than getting hit by a bus!

  • http://blog.atomicinc.com Avi Deitcher

    Mark, very well written. Every company I have worked with or for has given lip service to “succession planning.” And 95+% of them have ignored it. It is psychologically challenging to “make yourself irrelevant.” Still looking for the right methods to get the CEO and other Cs who don’t already think that way to do so.

  • http://blog.atomicinc.com Avi Deitcher

    Ha! I think I am the first consultant to publicly admit he doesn’t have the answer to every question!

  • James Khabushani

    Going through this right now. CTO decided to leave for Google (at least I know I can attract good talent?). Funny enough, I’m the same age you were when you learned the lesson. Thanks for the timely post.

  • http://twinenginelabs.com/ KeithHanson

    I’m coming out on the other side of a quarter now since our co-founder left (on amiable terms, and he’s quite happy in his new role). And while it’s tough, if your team is like mine, the slack will tighten up as everyone learns the new directions you’ll be taking. As Mark recently quoted, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill.

    Just so you know, it’s not going to be the hardest thing you go through. Somehow, as an entrepreneur, that makes it feel OK to me. Good luck, or rather, prepare to make your own :D

  • http://twinenginelabs.com/ KeithHanson

    I hate it when I hear other founders say things like this, but it took me years to build up to the point where I could replace most of my core functions that I created in the early versions of our company.

    I’ll admit, I like to get into the trenches with the team (sitting down for a debug session for a few minutes or diving into sales presentations with our business development staff), but I know that ultimately the best thing possible is to ensure that can happen without me. From there, I’m free to move wherever I’m needed, identify beachheads and how to get there, and let the talented people around me do their jobs.

    And frankly, that’s so much more fun, because everyone is way better at their jobs than I am, ha! I’m just there to make sure the vision is true, the runway is long enough, and there’s cash in the bank :D

    Great article. Made me think.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    I always used “hit by a bus” when a colleague suggested that was too pessimistic and changed it to “won the lottery”. I guess “hit by a beer truck” is right in the middle of those two :-)

  • http://blog.atomicinc.com Avi Deitcher

    I am adopting it forthwith.

    The parallel for a classic “disaster in the data centre” was a “backhoe cuts through all the power cables.” What is the equivalent? Vodka spilled?

  • http://www.mywifipassword.com/ Parham Beheshti

    Its a very tough sell, specially in this region (middle-east) people are doing everything they can to protect their position and sometimes abuse it!
    I countered that by being known for accepting every resignation. If someone wanted to give me his/her two weeks notice, I would ask them just to pack their stuff and leave that moment. may seem harsh but gave everyone a sense that no matter how important they feel they are, they can be replaced.

    Another issue was me my self, working as three people, making it hard for my management to replace me. They just couldn’t understand why they need to hire 3 people to replace me to have same level of productivity.

  • Phil Guest

    Mark thanks for sharing. Your colleague’s original assertion that many managers work hard to protect their own position is often what holds businesses back. Building a team that can operate without you so you can move on to bigger things is mantra I’ve tried to follow most of my career, though at times it can be scary when it’s time to let go and move on.

    Stephen Bungay’s book the ‘Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results’ is all about creating the right framework where teams can operate regardless of who is in command. It’s one of the best business books I’ve read to date and I’m sure many of your followers would get a great deal from reading it.

    Thanks again, really enjoying your blog.

  • http://www.ronfitz.com/ Ron Fitzherbert

    There should be a whole section in any disaster recovery plan that deals with people – at least in a functional succession plan (job A covers for B if B is hit by a beer truck). The “personal personnel” plan of who A and B are and how they are trained and prepared is up to the managers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. A rare act, indeed ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ouch. Good luck.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, keith.

    truth is … the best CEOs are able to get into the weeds. But that is also the problem. When a CEO is great you want them to be able to work on the most important things, not just want they enjoy tinkering with. Spending time recruiting a killer team member seems less urgent but as you know over the long-haul much more important. And it takes time, effort & perseverance. Ditto fund raising, press relationships, biz dev, etc.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah. yes. I grant you that cultural norms may make this harder in different regions.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the book reco. Appreciate it.

  • Nadine

    Added to that, I believe many people have untapped skills we can bring out by giving them more responsibilities and room to grow.

  • http://twinenginelabs.com/ KeithHanson

    As always, great insights :) Being a futurist/entrepreneur myself, it’s often so hard to remember that the future in our heads requires the time and perseverance you mention.

    I think you could write a whole book on how to prioritize those tough daily decisions that all can seem important at the same time (spending time recruiting vs. time coding vs. customer development vs. business development; all important tasks for maker CEOs), and when to realize you’re tinkering for fun instead of for the survival and growth of your company.