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Succession planning: Communication is essential for successful transition

Succession planning: Communication is essential for successful transition

The following is the fifth in a series of articles about the importance and benefits of succession planning within your business or organization. Throughout this series, we will explore the various steps of this critical planning process that will help protect the longevity of your business and provide professional growth for your future leaders.

Succession strategies can take on many forms, but the basic idea is to develop a series of logical steps that will help you achieve a smooth leadership transition. I will suggest to you that communication and time are two of the most important elements in a successful succession effort and that you, your successor, your employees and your customers need special attention during the transition period.

Succession planning should not be an afterthought. It is should be as prominent as your regular income tax preparation and should be accomplished over a long period of time. It is important that you think of succession planning not as an “event” but, rather, as a “process.” Allow adequate time to develop your plan and your successor. For example, before leaving my last position as the director of a technology operation, I had long known whom I would recommend to be my successor. This was part of the succession plan that I had in place shortly after I took over the position. The candidate was someone I had worked with inside the organization for years and who had expressed a sincere interest in working toward the position I occupied. For more than two years, I worked to mentor, coach, teach, train and develop him so that he would be ready for the challenge that lay ahead: my job.

It is important to remember that a designated change in leadership is simply that—change. It is equally important to recognize that people, by nature, are resistant to change, even when it is implemented for all the right reasons. Change brings about a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty for many. Allowing plenty of time for a transition to occur, as well as providing an environment of open communication, will go a long way toward alleviating the uneasiness and uncertainty that is associated with change.

Start with yourself. You are the person who makes the decisions and steers the direction of your business. You are the one everyone looks to for guidance. As soon as you have identified your successor and have begun to set the wheels in motion to implement your succession plan, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to ease out of the driver’s seat. Your gut reaction will be to jump in and keep doing what you have always done, but you need to consciously remind yourself that there is someone else in place now—someone you have selected to take over your duties and whom you trust more than anyone else to do what you have done for so long. Being committed to open communication with your successor is critical during this transition phase.

Speaking of your successor, remember that this period of transition is also about allowing him/her an opportunity to get more comfortable with his/her duties. Your successor needs to be allowed time to ease into the driver’s seat and take on the role of decision-maker. Allowing time for this transition will afford him/her the opportunity to have you there to answer questions, give advice and provide valuable perspective. For example, as soon as I had announced that I was leaving my position, I immediately began to delegate duties to my various managers, with the majority of the high-level responsibilities going to my recommended successor. This allowed for general knowledge transfer, but specifically it allowed my successor a chance to work through high-level decision making processes with me looking over his shoulder.

Next, you need to consider how you will introduce this leadership change to your employees. A transition to an “insider” is often easier for the employees to deal with because they already know this person and his/her management style. Just as you and your successor will benefit from a (relatively) lengthy transition period, so too will your employees. Tell them as quickly as you can about your specific succession plans, and be certain they know and acknowlwho will be the key decision maker for specific issues during the transition period. Your employees need time to understand the change, reprogram their thinking and begin to build the same high level of trust and confidence in your successor that they have in you. Loyalty and confidence are highly transferable, but they are earned over time, and there is no substitute for time.

Last, but certainly not least, you must communicate your leadership transition to your customers. Your success with your customers may be built on your specific management style or the relationship you have with key customers, so don’t forget to include them in the communication loop as soon as possible. Be sure to let them know that you have “hand-selected” your successor for noted reasons and reassure them that you will be around to assist with transition efforts. Personally introduce your successor to all of your key customers and make sure that you articulate to your successor the nature of the relationship with each one. Relationships at a personal level may be difficult to transfer, but be sure that your customers are completely satisfied from a professional level that their needs will be met. This sort of customer satisfaction is essential to their continued patronage of your business, particularly under new leadership.

Recognize that you need to give yourself, as well as your stakeholders, adequate time and ample information during the leadership transition. Although your methodical delegation of duties should begin to give you spare time, don’t book your timeshare and tee times just yet. You need this time to help manage the transition process. Make yourself readily available and visible to your employees and customers by scheduling customer meetings or attending division or staff meetings. Be ready to answer their questions, and begin to promote your successor’s strategies and plans for the future. This sort of coordinated communication campaign and time spent with the various groups will help ease the nerves and provide for a smooth leadership transition. Then you can schedule your tee time.

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