It was December 10th, 1993. 80-hour work weeks and international travel had laid me low and I’d finally seen my doctor the day before for a horrible cold I couldn’t shake. He peered and hmmmmed, sent some blood-work to the lab, and sent me home.
The next evening, right before the office Christmas party I had to give the rest of the company’s leadership team the awful news: I was very sick and probably terminal. I had leukemia. If I wasn’t hospitalized immediately I would be dead within the week, and my chances of long-term survival stood at 16%. We were totally unprepared.
Fortunately, I am still here to annoy and entertain you.
When a leader enters a new organization, they usually work like a dog to get to know the business pipeline and the personalities involved, to embed their new vision, and to create urgency for the changes needed to implement that mandate. They know they have a “honeymoon” period of a few months at best. After that it’s harder to create momentum for change.
They don’t often give much thought to what will happen to their team or their company if they get hit by the pie truck. That’s too bad, because the very activities that create a competent successor waiting in the wings also build stronger, more capable and productive teams, grow retention of key talent, and free the leader up to focus strategically – and advance much more quickly. Every leader should be doing these talent development activities from day one, without exception, so listen up:
Individual attention is a huge staff loyalty generator and morale booster. It keeps your team feeling connected and helps them see where their responsibilities fit into the bigger picture. It also gives them the benefit of your insight into solving their most intractable problems and elevating their game. Are you meeting individually with each member of your team at least once a month?
Shadowing is a great way to grow competency by creating opportunities for junior members to sit at the feet of the experts. Especially with your most likely successor, are you creating opportunities to include them in your telephone calls and meetings with your peers, your customers, and even your boss? This also has the very important effect of creating visibility for them at a more senior level and forcing them to develop the soft skills senior leadership requires for success.
Mentoring is a very significant way to grow talent quickly. For your potential successor and for high potentials within your team, this is a must. It doesn’t necessarily have to come from you. In fact, bringing in an outside resource leverages what your team is already learning from you in other ways. Are you helping them find a knowledgeable advisor to meet with regularly, perhaps a more senior colleague in another department or an executive coach?
Post mortems at the end of each project are a great learning opportunity for your whole team, but especially the more junior members. Professional sports teams do this at the end of every game for a reason. Are you taking the opportunity to acknowledge what went well and highlight significant contributions? Are you giving everyone time to analyze mistakes and learn from them, elevating their critical thinking and problem solving for the future?
Two in a box projects foster the cross-functional insight and collaboration so critical in today’s matrixed teams. Especially if the team is virtual and geographically dispersed, it’s important to look for opportunities to pair each team member with someone outside their functional area of expertise.
Let’s face it, in today’s flat organizational structures the opportunities to advance within the company can be limited and require patience. Are you keeping key talent challenged and engaged by exposing them to something new until you can move them up? In most large companies, cross-functional knowledge and experience plays a significant role in promotions to the Director’s level and above.
Ongoing training should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how often it gets overlooked. Are you budgeting annually for each member of your team to attend conferences, take classes, and sit for certifications? Do you periodically bring in experts to teach and train the team? The days when a degree was enough to qualify you are long gone. To stay competitive every organization must be a learning organization or it’s dead.
And if your boss isn’t reimbursing you for your own mentoring and training, be prepared to pay for it out of your own pocket. It’s tax deductible, and the return on investment is huge.
In my case, when I got sick I had developed a team that was an exceedingly well-oiled machine, but there was no one to step into the leadership gap during my months of hospitalization and slow convalescence. The company was small and really struggled during my absence. After I returned, I used the techniques above to replace myself and move up — twice. The first time, I trained a successor to move into my spot so I could give my attention to a startup company that we were spinning out. The second time, I left to start my own company.
If you want to develop the talent in your team, create a high performance organization, and groom your successor contact me to learn more about how I can help.
Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at http://thecogentexecutive.com/