Who’s Up Next?

Lately I’ve been having a growing number of discussions with leaders who need to move for one reason or another.  Some of them are taking on a new role, some are retiring, some are moving to a new organization, and a host of other reasons.  What I find interesting is how few of them have prepped someone to take over when this happens.  A large majority of leaders choose to be reactive to replacing themselves, and it causes a huge amount of stress and lost momentum.  They decide to leave, THEN they scramble to cobble together a system to hold things together until the new leader comes to inherit the mess.

I believe it’s because we, as leaders, work so hard to get to the spot we are in.  When we begin our careers, we are well aware that we are not at the top of the food chain.  We know that this beginning spot is just that, a beginning spot.  From that point, we begin to work, study, watch, give long hours, fail, learn, win, and repeat.  Over time, we become more adept at what we’re doing, we win more and fail less, and if you’re a great leader, you build a system and a team around you to make it all run smoothly.

Every so often a leader will get tapped on the shoulder to move and step out of the system they’ve built.  That’s the spot the leaders are in that I mentioned at the beginning.  We watch them, either with envy, pity, or something in the middle.  We see them struggle to transition, and if we are part of the organization they leave, we often feel the weight of the unpreparedness, as their departure and resulting vacuum forces more work, longer hours, and increased stress into our lives, until some sort of equilibrium is found with their replacement.  Then we go right back to building our systems and teams, and don’t consider it much, until it happens to us again.

We all recognize there is a better way.  We know we should be training whoever is up next in our system.  We should identify a capable leader, we should spend time training them and giving them opportunities, and we should set them free to lead.  We know we should.  What keeps us from it?  Usually it’s a unique blend of a few things:

  1. Fear that we will be replaced.
  2. We like what we do and don’t want to let go of it.
  3. No one else does it as well as we do.
  4. We are running too fast to slow down to train someone.
  5. There is no one on my team who could do the job.

All of these have areas of truth, and all of them are colored by lies.  It is our job as leaders to identify who is up next, train them, and set them up to succeed.  Here are some basic steps you can take to begin the process:

  1. What are the things in your organization that you do, that no one else does right now?  What is uniquely yours?  Make a written list.
  2. What are the things that you do, that others also do somewhere else in your organization?  Write them down as well.
  3. Who on your team is ready to do a little more?  They don’t have to be ready to take over, but who is ready to be stretched?
  4. What could they possibly be trained to do off of either list?  What would it take to get them up to speed?
  5. Pick the easiest tasks/people to begin with, and begin giving away what you can.

As you do this more and more, you will find that often the reason people struggle is because your expectations are not realistic, your fear is coloring your decisions, and your ability to train others may not be as strong as you think.  Once you begin to work on improving in those three areas, you will discover that your team is much more capable than you believe they are right now.

The last step is the toughest though, and it separates the A+ leaders from the A leaders.  Who in your organization can you see with the potential to sit in your seat?  It will look different, because they have different gifts and skills than you.  They will need a team that functions with them, not with you.  BUT, who has the big picture ability.  As you build your team, and release them to do more, look for the big picture person.  Have honest conversations with them about what you see in them, what you believe they are capable of.  If they agree, begin giving them chances to work next to you, and lead the charge on some projects.

If you successfully create this type of system, you will be moving.  People will recognize a different level of leadership in you, and give you more opportunities to lead on bigger stages.  But when it comes, you will hand off a transition system that is ready, not one that falters without you specifically at the wheel.