Planning for Your Successor: Lessons from Our Predecessors

Planning for one’s successor is, arguably, a practice as old as the most fundamental form of human society: the tribe. Appropriately, some of the most inspiring succession advice I’ve found is hundreds of years old. It is helpful, when planning for the future, to draw on the wisdom of the past.

Classical examples of the sociology of leadership succession are found in the Muqaddimah, a seminal volume of world history written in 1377 by Ibn Khaldūn. In this work, ibn Khaldūn describes the rise and fall of empires and dynasties as a cycle that begins anew every three generations, or roughly three hundred years (Ibn Khaldūn, et al., 1967). Khaldūn argued that early societies, whether consciously or intuitively, planned in intervals of three generations. The first generation founds an empire on a set of principles; the second generation realizes and expands upon those principles. The third generation enjoys the benefits won by the work of previous generations, but it grows more concerned with maintaining a lifestyle than with adhering to the principles that made that lifestyle possible. Echoes of dynastic succession may be seen in twenty-first century theories of the “business exit strategy.” In the microcosm of professional succession this cycle, in my experience, takes place over a mere five years.

The question remains then how can organizations strike a balance between profiting from the energy and pioneering spirit found in its newer incoming leadership, while not having to lose the wisdom and experience of the outgoing senior leadership?

First, senior and incoming leadership may preserve institutional memory through documentation. “Put it in writing, codify processes and record best practices and keep a history,” notes J.J. Madsen in a 2008 Buildings article. Political and academic organizations often designate this role to a “historian.” A more efficient model for the corporate organization is to allocate time to each senior employee for documentation. Incoming leadership should make it a point to analyze and interpret these records. Other employees, lower in the hierarchy, might bring valuable perspectives to these records.

Traditional Pakistani wisdom recommends that we “play with a child for seven years, teach him for seven years and befriend him for seven years.” From this simple advice we can extract a wealth of wisdom in organizational management. Just as in the case of recalculating three generations as calculated into five years for a modern organization, we can calculate the seven years stipulated for raising and educating a family member to six to seven months when preparing a successor. In the management world play may be interpreted as shadowing; both involve the phenomena of witnessing and participating in the daily interactions of your mentor in a controlled environment and without the assumption of full responsibility. Teaching is interpreted as theoretical grounding, an important aspect in the development of a successor. Professional skills and competence alone are not suitable criterion on planning for your successor. When interpreting the ‘Befriend’ aspect it is important to note that sociability plays heavily in this decision making processes. Mentors typically chose mentees that they are friends with (Madsen, 2008).

The three points and reasoning can be elaborated in the following order.

Play—Shadowing

Mentors should be willing to take on mentees as interns or shadows. A mentee given the opportunity to shadow a mentor learns a great deal of the day to day responsibilities and the mentee can put the documentation of his mentor in a practical perspective.

Teach—Educating

The theoretical concepts learned from coursework, textbooks and lecture settings start to take on an entirely new meaning when they can be referred to practical circumstances. This is why it is befitting to include a course of instruction either during or after, but never in lieu of the shadow period.

Befriend / Advise

At this stage in training the mentor should step back and allow the mentee to assume responsibility. This reaffirms trust between the two partners. Of course the mentee will continue to receive advice from his or her mentor, but the mentor should focus on advising the mentee as s/he would advise his or her peers. This relationship of equals encourages a balanced relationship in when the mentee requests feedback more frequently then the mentor offers it. Advice is more likely to be reflected upon and internalized when it is solicited; unsolicited advice sows discord in many relationships, personal and professional.

Planning for your successor has long been considered the domain of retirees, but even younger professionals should consider the practice. Changing dynamics in the workforce have lead to the likelihood of younger employees returning to previous employers. An organization that isn’t a perfect fit early in a person’s career may later provide wonderful opportunities. A change in management may also take an institution in an entirely new direction.

A colleague of mine who is a school librarian worked for a private school that neither understood nor appreciated the role of a media specialist. My colleague didn’t see himself at the institution for longer than one year, so he created a strategic development plan and a list of policy and proposal documents to prepare his successor. The administration filed these documents, probably without reading them. Two years after my colleague resigned, the school was headed by a forward thinking principal who also held a Masters in Library Science. After reviewing the documentation she not only incorporated his plans into the overall school development plan, she insisted that the administration find and rehire the “author of the reports.” My colleague is now working at his old job under new leadership with a new raise.

Planning for your successor is a serious step taken by professional who have a stake in the continuity of their organization. Even employees that don’t find their grievances sufficient cause for resignation might benefit from planning for their successors as an exercise in self-evaluation.  A successful tenure at any organization is all the more appreciated when this success reproduces itself creating a legacy for the institution.

References

  • Ibn Khaldūn, Rosenthal, F., Rosenthal, F., Rosenthal, F., Rosenthal, F., & Rosenthal, F. (1967). The muqaddimah : An introduction to history (2d ., wi corrections a augment bibliography ed.). Princeton: N.J. Princeton University Press.
  • Madsen, J. J. (2008). (6) ways to groom your successor. Buildings, 102(1), Jan. 2008.