Lately, it seems that more and more entities are engaged in succession planning under the advice of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. If you think about it, you probably can recall the skit I’m thinking about when I talk about their succession-planning method. “Who’s on First? What’s on Second? I Don’t Know’s on Third…” Or something along those lines.

Essentially, there is no clear line of succession. Whether the company is big or small, no one seems to know who or what they need in the “next” CEO.

Succession in the Heir

Perhaps the most visible line of succession in the world is for the throne of Great Britain. Queen Elizabeth has reigned for over 50 years, and the heir to throne is her eldest son Charles, Prince of Wales. Many argue as to whether or not he should be the one to succeed her to throne. Some say the royal crown and scepter should pass not to Charles, but to his son William who is next in line to succeed to throne. Another line of succession, not of royalty but of power, is that of the Presidency of the United States. In the event that something happens to the sitting President, the Vice President assumes the Presidency. Should something happen to both the President and Vice President, the person next in line for the Oval Office is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. These lines of authority and the passing of power are clearly identified and spelled out. Regardless of how anyone feels about who is currently filling the position or role, everyone clearly knows who is next in line.

Heir Apparent, Next Generation, New Blood, Or…

There is a lot to be said of continuity, for the consistency of seeing a vision through, for passing the reigns of leadership from the hands of one leader to someone who shares the same characteristics, vision, and style. There is a lot to be said for it and against it. When things are working, the environment is unchanging and those factors make up a package that is strong, capable, and adaptable. There’s a lot to be said against it when it is a perpetuation of “the way we’ve always done things”.

Sometimes, skipping the heir apparent to go with the next generation may make sense. You have a degree of continuity, but you also have something a step removed from the way things have always been done: The best of the old and the potential of the new… maybe.

On the other hand, bringing in some one completely new can provide an opportunity for a different perspective, new ideas, more energy, and revitalization … or disruption, resentment, and discontinuity. There’s potential for success and disaster!

Upside Downside: Planning for Success

So what’s an organization to do? Be self aware and monitor the need. In order for an organization to survive, it must be constantly evaluating its need for resources, its financial position and results. Succession planning (and preparing for the “next” leaders in each of the organization’s key positions) is one more aspect of this self diagnostic. From all levels of the organization, everyone knows what is working and what isn’t—whether they admit it or not. Clues large and small exist at all times at all levels; as the organization is functioning, it defines its needs and must capture its requirements. It must also look internally to see if it has the resources in existence or the capability to develop internal resources to fill those needs. It must be objective in its ability to look at its existing operations and people to identify current state and desired future state, and define the gap between them.

I Don’t Know Doesn’t Work Here

Organizations hire talent. Then they forget about the talent they have hired. Organizations see only the skill sets they interact with on a daily basis, instead of seeing each employee as “potential.” What skills and abilities does this employee have that we aren’t using? What skills and abilities can we develop in this employee? Where can we make investments in existing talent to fill our future needs?

Many organizations are outwardly focused and downplay the talent pool that exists within their four walls. They fail to tap into the organizational knowledge banks and mine for the resources they have and can deploy.

For example, a company wanted to develop a strategic plan and budget for their organization. They immediately called for a consultant to come in and do the project. The consultant (Dave) arrived on site to discuss the project with them. As he was walking down the aisle, he heard a familiar voice and stopped. Turning into the cubicle to his left, there was his former boss, the man who taught him how to develop product costs, department budgets, and do strategic planning. He looked at his former boss (Frank) and then he looked at the person (Bill) who had called him for the project. He turned to Bill and said,

“Bill, I’d like to introduce you to Frank, my former boss, mentor, and the most knowledgeable strategic finance and budget person I know. Frank, I’d like to introduce you to Bill. He is looking for someone to develop a strategic plan and budget for this company. I think you guys should talk. Give me a call and we’ll do lunch soon.” And Dave turned and walked out of the building.

Well, Dave was an honest guy. He could have stuck around and had a great consulting assignment. He definitely should have gotten paid for identifying a resource inside this company that they didn’t know they had. But why didn’t the company know they had the resource? Was the organization in chaos, or merely unorganized? Chances are they were just busy being in business. They thought they knew all they needed to know about their internal resources. Maybe someone did know at one time that someone in the organization did strategic planning and budgets, but someone forgot. Or, maybe as things sometimes are, the person outside is always smarter than those inside the company. Who knows? And does it matter? The point is, a company needs to be self aware in order to properly choose the next generation of leaders for any position. Without assumption of power, of fit, of knowing what any one knows. They must constantly be assessing their current and future needs; assessing the fit; assessing the skills and talents; and assessing the potential. Where do you want the organization to go? How do you want to get there? Is the path you’ve taken previously the one you want to continue to travel?

Don’t be Abbott and Costello. Know Who and What, and don’t let I Don’t Know work for you.

Copyright © 2008 F.O.C.U.S. Resources, Inc.

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