It’s football season in America, and it seems that a weekend never goes by without some key player of a favorite team being injured. And the next few games, and sometimes the rest of the season will depend on what kind of backup the team has for that key player. Over the course of an entire season, there are likely several such injuries, and the teams that have good “bench strength” are the ones that most often keep winning.
What I have written in the paragraph above is no mystery to anyone who is a serious football fan—or for that matter a fan in nearly any team sport. Having a good “bench” is almost as important as the regular lineup. Strangely enough, the same people who understand this fail to see how it transfers to the world of business.
Company after company relies on a few key people for their success. Sometimes it’s not even the C-suite people. Many important tasks get done at the level or two below the C-suite. These same companies are usually missing something important: a management succession plan. When a key person defects to a competitor, falls ill, or worse yet, dies suddenly, the entire company could be in distress or at risk. Certainly someone should have considered this possibility and done some advance planning on building up some “bench strength.” But has anyone?
A succession plan is a relatively simple thing at its core. An organization chart is a good place to start. Under each of the positions, fill in the name of potential successors and indicate whether they are “ready now” (they usually aren’t) or “how long” for them to be ready. A common mistake is to list the same few people as successors for almost everyone. Don’t do that. Since they are “few in number,” they can’t continue to handle their own job and be a successor to fill a critical vacancy. You would just be “moving a hole.”
What can be done, if we learn from the football analogy, is to give potential successors some experience in the various aspects of the job they might aspire to hold in the future. When football teams get comfortably ahead of a competitor, they substitute players from the bench so they can get real game experience. The same can be done—in slightly different ways—in business.
When a key person takes a vacation, what better opportunity is there than to put a potential successor temporarily in charge? When there is a critical skill possessed by a key person, it seems only logical to do “cross-training” of potential fill-ins at every opportunity. If the particular skill needed is more in line with culture or leadership, then a mentoring program will help prepare successors, and build a “stronger bench.”
If too many of the key positions on the succession chart have no viable successor listed—even if they are a few years from being ready—the company is at great risk. People move around. They leave unexpectedly for the darnedest reasons: to be near grown children or grandchildren, or to escape winter weather, or because a spouse has a better opportunity elsewhere, to name just a few such reasons.
There is never a convenient time to build “bench strength” because everyone is always busy. But there is never a convenient time to lose a key person either, and nothing will make that event more inconvenient than not having a succession plan and some “bench strength.” Another way to build bench strength is to build versatility into the people and organization.
This can be accomplished by moving people to “next door” jobs for a period of time. Typically, functions like sales, customer service and marketing are “next door,” sharing many overlapping knowledge elements; so are procurement, distribution and logistics, quality, safety and operations management share many common elements. Moving someone into a “next door” job does several things. It adds versatility to that person and the organization as a whole. It tests them to see how flexible and transferable they are.
If successful, it makes them doubly effective when moved back to their home discipline. Filling every surprise opening from outside the organization sends a bad message to the people who have been waiting for their turn “to play.” It’s far better to have a bench that you can promote from.
However you choose to do it, I hope the message is clear. Things happen; usually at the most inconvenient times; and the less prepared you are for them, the worse the impact will be. Just imagine that your favorite football team lost its starting quarterback, running back or key defenders. The next person on the bench has to “step up” and perform. Why is it any different in your company?
Do your succession plan quickly—now. Then refine it as you look for the gaps you need to fill. It will amaze you how much more aware you will be of the needs of your “team.” Get out there and build some “bench strength” now—before you need it.