These days many firms are at one stage or another of succession.

It seems that the economic storms of the past years and anticipation of significant shifts ahead are necessitating change, either voluntarily or otherwise. Shifts in leadership are happening all around and batons are being passed. The question is whether the baton will make a successful handoff or be dropped along the way.

Most succession is not planned at all; rather it is a set of conversations about subjective preferences. The dialogue goes back and forth between those in charge about who they think might best fit a given leadership role. Opinions are exchanged, people are postured, and ideas are offered, but the actual work of planning is set aside in favor of gut feelings. Senior leaders leverage their skills of discernment to add to the dialogue and sometimes it works out. But how much better would it be if the subjective discernment was coupled with objective planning and bounded by realistic measures? Alas, this is not the norm and thus, the dropped batons. Succession planning is a dynamic many acknowledge as essential, but few will invest the time, effort, and discipline to see through. It takes all three.

Time is necessary to work through and walk through the possibilities and personalities an effective succession plan requires. It’s not to be rushed. Authentic succession planning is detailed to a fault and that takes time. No stone is left unturned; nothing is left to hope or chance.

Time is money and so the spend of time in effective succession planning is an investment of the firm’s assets. Those chosen to form and lead the planning must see this effort as a direct investment in the future of the firm, not as a necessary evil wrapped in inconvenience. Frankly, succession planning could be the most valuable investment the firm can make in itself.

Expended effort is about focus and energy, concentration and expense. Authentic succession planning involves intentional and purposeful effort to see it through to completion. It’s often a group effort involving those being transitioned, candidates for new placements, trusted advisors, and knowledgeable participants to maintain objectivity and truth. The effort involves the investment of people and funds to see it through. Anything less is a compromise resulting in doubt-laden outcomes.

Focused effort is an intentional action. Intentionality is essential to success. Intentionality prioritizes the investment of time, people, and dollars making each meaningful toward an effective outcome.

Many distractions will occur over the planning timeline. Other priorities will assume first place. Fighting with succession planning may not be seen as most important. This is normal in that succession planning isn’t a quick-and-done project with an easily determined end. Rather, it is a program that is always in place, marked by preplanned milestones along the way. Effective succession planning programs are embedded within the culture of a firm.

Discipline is essential to succession planning. Setting realistic timeframes, levels of effort, and achievable paths are critical to successful programs. But these are not enough. Commitment to the discipline of planning is the third essential dynamic of authentic succession planning.

Frankly, it’s not convenient to plan. It can be viewed as a distraction from the go-go-go of the daily grind. We fool ourselves into believing that activity is progress. But this is not always the case. Commitment to disciplined planning is what makes the difference between known and understood possibilities and the unknown guessing too often encountered in business. Planning makes ideas concrete, allowing the management of the company to forge a path in an ordered, measured, and predictable manner.

As an embedded discipline, succession planning can become an activity that is resented, taking up time on otherwise valuable agendas. To avoid this, it is essential that the effort be regularly updated, refreshed, and injected with new thinking and creativity. Conducting leadership assessments inside and outside the firm will add significant perspective to the effort.

Comparing and contrasting internal leadership effectiveness against that of other firm leaders and that of leaders outside the A/E/C domain broadens the oft narrow view held within a firm. Leveraging outside assistance in conducting this assessment is an effective way to ensure objectivity, allowing the results to speak for themselves. When this is done, adjustments to the succession plan may be made to better align future leadership placements against a broader perspective.

Authentic succession planning is well worth the time, effort, and discipline expended as it establishes success far beyond the viewable horizon. Effective succession planning is essential to business sustainability. If done well, it sets the course toward The Resilient Way.


Photo by Marvin Ronsdorf on Unsplash. Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash.

Blanca Longarte-Blaney is the managing principal of the Strategic Leadership practice of DI Strategic Advisors.

Dave Gilmore is the president and CEO of DesignIntelligence and a scholar member of the American Institute of Economic Research. 

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.