The Mark of a Leader: How to Prepare Your Successor

Posted 10.05.2009

Kenlewis1 The end of last week brought a couple of mirror image stories about leaders in the world of finance.  The first was the sudden announcement from Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis that he intends to retire at the end of the year.  As reported in The Economist, the B of A board is going to have to scramble to come up with a successor. In contrast is the news coming out of JP Morgan Chase that CEO Jamie Dimon has named a new head of investment banking in what he acknowledges is a key building block of a leadership succession plan.  Jamiedimon1 As quoted in the New York Times, Dimon said, “It’s my duty to the board to focus on succession.  It’s important that we have people trained and tested with experience to succeed me.”

As Joe Nocera pointed out in his weekly Talking Business column, one of the most important duties of a leader is to prepare his or her successor. This is true not just for CEO’s, but for leaders at any level. How do you do it?  Here are five simple yet actionable ideas for preparing your successor:

Accept the fact that you’re not indispensable. The more you act like you are, the more likely you’ll be trapped in your job and leave your organization unprepared for the future that will inevitably come. That’s the glass half empty perspective on it.  The glass half full point of view is that if you develop the next generation of leaders, you’ll create more opportunities for yourself and the organization.  Preparing strong leaders is how you leave a legacy that outlasts your time in your current leadership role.

Identify the handful of “A” players on your team that show the capacity to get results while building the relationships that make the results sustainable over the long run.  Once you’ve identified some high potential candidates, take the next step and identify the experiences they’ll need to be well rounded leaders at the next level.

those high potential leaders in conversations and meetings that will expose them to people and issues that they haven’t had a lot of experience with in the past.

Stretch your succession candidates by giving them special project assignments or jobs that round out their experience base.  If they’ve been the “inside” people previously, put them in roles that will expose them to external constituencies.  If they’ve been more focused on the external aspects of the business,  give them assignments that will build their operational muscles.

Coach them in their development by asking questions that help them debrief what they’re learning from experience and help them game plan for what’s coming up.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to coach them yourself, find someone either external or internal to the organization who is capable of playing that role.  Whatever you do, don’t just throw them into the deep end of the pool with no support.  Your goal is to develop leaders, not to debilitate them.

What are your thoughts?  What’s the best thing someone did for you to get you ready for a bigger role?  What would you add to the list of ideas to develop your organization’s leaders of the future?