WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT SUCCESSION PLANNING
Interview featuring Joran Oppelt, Founder of Illustrious Consulting, and Sumaya K. Owens, Founder of Present Moment Media.
Sumaya: Let's dive in. I know you work with founders, CEOs, and various other executives. What is coming up for them? What do they have in common? How does this topic relate to them?
Joran: The most common theme I hear when I work with leaders and teams at the top of the organization is bottlenecking. I'm always talking in metaphor. So we're either bottlenecked and stuck in the decision-making process, or they start talking about the pie like they have their fingers in everything. They can't get out of the day-to-day. They can't step back and let the team lead and make decisions.
There's that kind of pain that you hear from the team. Sometimes from the C-suite or sometimes from direct reports, but for the leader, it almost looks like the opposite. It's like, “I don't know if I have the right team. I don't know if I trust the people I have.”
And as a founder, as a leader, that's important. That's an important sense of security and stability to have, that you trust the team you have and that you have the right people in the right seats. The funny contradiction about that is that they sometimes need to be told what they need to do to demonstrate that trustworthiness.
So, it is you as a leader who is responsible. You are beholden to communicating what you need to see demonstrated to have that trust in the team and know that the time is right to step back and let them lead.
Sumaya: And how do you help them work through these bottlenecks and other issues they're having?
Joran: At a high level, we use a lot of the coaching methods around team coaching or one-on-one development plans. There might be some visioning or some chartering that needs to happen around the team or the team's goals. Sometimes that's a short process depending on what internal, intrapersonal and interpersonal work they've done already. It just depends on how ready the team and the people on the team are for that. If they have some of those foundational building blocks in place – they might have a vision and need to orient around it and get everybody leaning in the same direction and filling each other's sails around that one vision – that’s one thing. They also might have five different ideas of what the vision is. So having those foundational building blocks in place first is really important. Once that's in place, then the leadership development piece can come online.
Sumaya: And what do they need to believe in order to be ready for this step?
Joran: Yeah, that's a big one. It reminds me of the coaching question, “what do you need to believe in order for this to be true?” That founder or CEO really needs to believe in the power of the process.
The best leaders really love and appreciate what coaching and having a thought partner can provide. They also budget for it.
It sounds self-serving for me to say this, but the best people I've worked with – and the people I've seen the most success with – have a budget for consulting and coaching, just like they would have a budget for marketing or innovation. They plan for coaching and consulting as part of the process. They launch with the intent to scale with this as a line in the business, because they know it's an important piece. They know it's a vital piece – not only for them, but the people they are going to have reporting to them.
Another key is that they are queuing up leaders behind them, constantly getting people set up to lead in their place. So there is a belief in the power of the process. There's a belief in the power of human potential. There's a belief in their team to get things done, and a belief in their team to make the right decisions.
There's all kinds of beliefs they need to have. And that is a mindset shift for some people. Not everybody starts a company believing in their team. Founders at startups have typically never led people before. But it’s not too long before their focus needs to move from managing people to keeping up with the constant pivoting.
That transition can be hard if your team isn’t showing you the things you want to see. They will make decisions differently from you. They will lead differently than you. They will communicate in a style that's different from you. That's sometimes where those bridges need to be formed to build trust.
Sumaya: One of the things I've heard from you about working with founders is that at times it's challenging for them to let other people lead or step up to the plate or take more ownership. I think that leads very well into this topic of succession planning. Whenever we've talked about it, my understanding is it's really about the sustainability and the long term goals of the company, with or without the founder being present. Can you talk a little bit more about what succession planning is? What is involved?
Joran: I think succession planning should come online earlier than most people think. You should really be thinking about it early on.
As the business scales, you get to the point where you should start thinking about it. You're going to have to model the way, show the team how to communicate the vision, and be queuing up leaders behind you. It's usually later on that the team is learning how to play new instruments or the business finds itself flat lining. It could be that you're not bringing in more business because the founder is in delivery mode all the time. You’re unable to scale because the leader is unwilling to develop more leaders.
You may find yourself at a crossroads: “Can we bring more business on and scale? If we do that, that means that we need somebody else (or multiple people) in delivery mode.”
I think planning before that moment happens would really benefit people so that they can be ready for it. Looking at your business roadmap and knowing you're approaching that crossroads moment is crucial. You can say, “OK, here is that crossroads moment we read about and predicted. We knew it was coming so we’re ready to act.”
I think the key components of a really good succession plan are having the right team, knowing you have the right team, believing in your team, and then measuring what your team is doing.
The hard part that we don't always talk about is that some tough decisions might need to be made before you get to that crossroads moment. I say tough decision because it's hard sometimes to discern whether it's the founder or CEO saying, “I don't think this is the right person to step up and lead in my absence” or whether that founder or CEO just hasn't asked the right questions yet. Maybe they haven't poured their knowledge, wisdom, and experience into them properly. Maybe they haven't opened the door to give them opportunities to prove themselves and demonstrate their leadership in important ways. Maybe they haven’t allowed them to build that trust.
It really is a two-way street to figure out whether you have the right team before you start to step away.
Sumaya: Absolutely. And whenever a leader, a CEO or founder decides to begin this process of succession planning, who do they go to? I know that as a consultant, this is something you offer, but, what do they look for in a coach or a consultant if they're looking for someone to help them with succession planning?
Joran: You work with who you trust. You work with people who have helped someone you know. People almost never look up a consultant on Google. You might have someone on your team look up the pain points they’re experiencing (change management, team development, culture work, etc.). But most times, you're reaching out to somebody in your Mastermind group or a friend in the industry and saying, “Hey, we're dealing with this. Who do you know that can help us get through this crossroads moment?”
It's also not just taste or style. Sometimes there are worldviews you want somebody you work with to align with. It's not just, “I went to college with this person” or “they're into sports, or music, or whatever.”
Sometimes it's, “Can I get a sense that this person is developmentally just above or below where I'm at?”
It's like the emotional tone scale. You want to communicate just above or below where people are at. That's where we can get the sense of matching culturally with an organization or share the same sense of humor or values.
Sumaya: And that's important because how you run your business is based on your own values as a leader. I've definitely been in those situations. I’ve worked with a coach or consultant who was recommended to me and the way that they wanted to implement certain strategies or grow or scale the business in certain ways didn't align with me.
If you had to think of a couple of values that are important to you as a coach or consultant, what would they be? The reason I ask is that I'm curious to know if there are other people out there listening who may resonate with them and share similar values.
Joran: Illustrious has a set of values in order that we might deliver the best possible, most creative, premium work and value to our clients. But how I’d like to respond to that question is, “What values might I look for in potential clients?”
There's something around honesty for me. I've worked with leaders and teams before that weren't necessarily forthcoming, weren't willing to be truthful, weren't willing to be honest with their leaders, and leaders not willing to disclose all the details to their teams.
This just builds up resentment. Teams and leaders who are willing to be radically honest with each other, those are the ones who are the most fun to work with. There might be bumps along the road in the process of being honest with each other, but it's like any other relationship. I'd rather have honesty and communication now, and be able to face the things now, rather than have this stuff building up over time. So, radical honesty is important as a value. It doesn't have to be listed on the “About Us” page on their website. But, if I get a sense from the team that they're being honest with each other, then that's a green flag.
The other one is the belief in human potential. I mean, they've got to believe that people can change. They've got to believe that people can get better. They've got to believe that if they feed and water something, it will grow. There's just a belief in potential that's gotta be there. It's the growth mindset as opposed to the static mindset. It sometimes takes some digging, because people will say things you want to hear – not just to me, but to each other.
They might say, “We believe in this” or “We value this.”
But then, when you look at (and talk to) the team, you can clearly see they’re not living it. And that lack of transparency and dishonesty leads to a lack of psychological safety. Then, we’re talking about larger problems – distrust, people shutting down, and turnover.
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ABOUT THE Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author and consultant with certifications in coaching, storytelling, design thinking and virtual facilitation.