The Succession Test

January 24, 2024
# min read
Grant Tate

Succession planning is a big concern today, especially in small and medium businesses. The older generation of owners and managers are at or near retirement but must plan adequately for their successors or train candidates properly.

I'll not make this a treatise on succession planning but, instead, describe an approach that only some organizations seem to use.

When I was an executive at IBM, we were required to have someone "sit in" or fulfill our job if we were on vacation or absent for any other reason. That allowed us to give our replacement candidates a chance to demonstrate their leadership capabilities.

For instance, five high-level managers reported to me in one of my positions. Three of them had demonstrated strong performance with potential for further advancement. But, I needed a real test to see how each might perform in a job at my level. My two-week vacation presented the opportunity to test one of the three.

I selected the person (let's call him John) to act in my stead, outlined the assignment for him, and notified upper management and everyone in my organization that John would be in charge during the two weeks. "In charge" meant John would have the full range of authority and responsibility that went with the job—setting goals and objectives, assigning tasks, running projects, evaluating performance, making decisions, solving problems, and representing our organization in meetings with higher management. Making formal presentations to corporate management was frequent in my job, so the two weeks would allow John to demonstrate his ability to prepare a presentation, make it, and bring home the bacon if we were trying to obtain approval for one of our important projects.

When I returned after vacation, we crystallized the learning. John reviewed his decisions and activities with me and performed a detailed self-evaluation that included obstacles faced, lessons learned, observations about the team's performance, and assessments of interactions with staff members and executives. He developed his suggestions for further personal development.

After I accumulated feedback from a sample of John's peers and other staff people, as well as some of the executives with whom John interacted, John and I met again to review the data, give my assessment of the results, and complete his personal development plan.

We did not use formal 360-degree assessments then, but the multiple interviews gave similar results.

Most business leaders or owners take (or ought to take) a vacation sometime. That is a significant opportunity to test a candidate's capability for succession. And…it is a unique opportunity to provide actionable feedback and a foundation for future personal development.

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Succession & Human Resource Planning

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