“The thing that sits so heavy with me is the knowledge that so many of our senior leaders could walk out the door at any moment, and we don’t have the bench strength below them to fill in the knowledge, experience, and leadership that they will be taking with them.” I hear this message of anxiety, frustration, and what feels like helplessness from leaders all the time when they talk to me about their current business worries. The very real knowledge that most of their experienced leaders could walk into their office and set their nearing retirement date any day weighs heavily on nearly all the organizations I work with. (A feeling backed by the AARP that shows 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every single day.) From professional services firms to manufacturing companies and every company in between, it’s always on the “list of things I need to find a way to fix” in discussion. Couple that with how many businesses are doing more with less and how many feel stretched to get the work done that is required of them, investing in the time, energy, interest, and ability it takes in solving, what feels like, a tomorrow problem closing the leadership gap tends to fall to the bottom of the list, staying more of a worry than something that has action taken against it. Though it never seems to move off the “worry” list and often hovers near the top.
If you find yourself in this situation, let this be the reminder you need that while it seems like a tomorrow problem, it’s going to be a today problem sooner than you think, and at that point, it will be too late to stop the very real pain it will cause within your organization. It takes time to identify potential new leaders. It takes time to train those new leaders. It takes time to transfer knowledge to those new leaders. It takes time for those leaders to grow into the leader you need them to be. And it takes time for those leaders to grow the confidence needed to step into those oh-so-large-shoes you need them to fill in order for your organization to continue running successfully.
In my next few blogs, I will share with you what you can do to identify and put into action a plan for closing the gap between the leaders you have and the leaders you need:
The first step is to assess the leaders you have: Identify those leaders that will need succession behind them in the upcoming years. Who is likely to leave/retire in the next one, two or three years? For those leaders who may leave in the next two to three years, the good news is you have a moderate amount of time to plan and work to grow leaders behind them as long as you begin today. For those leaders you believe have the potential to leave in the next year, this is a different story. With this year or less timeline, tomorrow’s problem isn’t really a tomorrow problem, this is most definitely a today problem. It can take a year or more for a new leader to train, grow and find their footing, to be able to step into the role that you need them to fill and to be good at it. If you find yourself in this situation, you simply must begin the leadership development process today. There is no time to put this off any longer.
The next step is to identify those individuals in your organization you believe would make great leaders or have the capacity to continue growing in their leadership capabilities. An important note here is that you will need more than simply a 1:1 ratio (one senior leader out and one leader you are growing behind her/him). This is because the reality is not all identified leaders make it into the leadership roles we hope they will. Many times, organizations identify leaders they believe will make the next great generation of leaders, however, as we begin the process of growth with them, it becomes obvious that they are not growing into the leaders the organization needs. Or an organization thinks an individual has great potential and is secretly banking on them stepping into a new role when their senior leader leaves, only to realize much too late that the individual is not interested in taking the next big step in their career. The same result can take place as the individual grows into the role. They begin the process believing they want the next step in their career, but as they discover what is truly required out of them and the role, they decide the role is not for them. This happens more often than you would think, and while it is painful when it happens, it is better for everyone that they realize early on they are no longer interested rather than once they are in the role.
These first two sound like obvious steps, and to be fair, they are. It’s not knowing that we should, it’s the actually doing that is so important. So this week, I ask you to take an inventory of your leaders, both outgoing and potentially incoming. Get a real picture of where you think the organization sits from a future leadership standpoint. While we can never guarantee how things will go, having a plan makes it that much easier to be successful. If you have a plan that you have previously drafted, dust that list off and give it a real look again. Organizations and individuals change so quickly it’s important that we re-evaluate this plan frequently. In the coming weeks, I will share the second half of how to close this leadership gap, but for now, get your plan solid.
It’s easy to be pulled into the fires of the day, the immediate needs of the organization and its people. But real leaders know that future planning, especially the strategic planning of future leaders, is always a today problem.