Succession Planning: Marshall Goldsmith vs. Eric Raymond

There is such a thing as a single, powerful litmus test of management and leadership ability. It is your handling of succession. As I read Succession: Are You Ready? by Marshall Goldsmith, I was overcome by a sense of “this is unreal,” and for a moment I couldn’t figure out why. Then it hit me: the book is excellent, but it belongs within an era of management thinking when succession was primarily a C-suite issue. Until very recently, only in the stratosphere did you find the sort of unique people who were not plug and play.  The ranks were, almost by definition, fungible, which meant succession was not an issue. Management thinking on succession for 2009 is represented by the laconic one-line understatement from Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “When you lose interest in a [computer] program, your last duty to it is to hand it off to a competent successor.” In the brave new world of work, where anarchic, leaderless organizations and wandering bands of open-source ronin are as common as the traditional organization, the idea of “succession” — having one person take over a role in an effort from another — needs reconstruction. Its center of gravity is not in the C-suite, but in the fish-market of coordinating unique individuals that used to be known as the “ranks.” Can we, I wonder, reconstruct the idea of succession, and port the insights of thinkers like Goldsmith to the new world of work?

Succession Then and Now

I am a huge admirer of Goldsmith, and was just at the GTD Summit where I heard him speak. His previous book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, which I reviewed, should be required reading  for anyone whose work depends on the efforts of other people.

Succession: Are You Ready? treats one aspect of any succession process: the behavioral aspect (Goldsmith seems almost anxious to stick to that, he reiterates several times that he is not an expert in functional and strategic aspects of succession). The world the book represents is the one left over from the lifetime employment era, when big companies had detailed succession plans for multiple management levels, extending decades into the future. This was beautifully described in Peter Cappelli’s Talent on Demand. An entire management training industry mushroomed around the process of sanding the rough edges off “high potential” leadership candidates (I went through one such myself last year, which included that famous piece of sandpaper, the 360-degree review). You could characterize succession management strategy during this period as follows:

  • In the ranks, it was a matter of resume filtration, supply-chain management, and provision of technical training to fill knowledge and skill gaps. Succession planning was reduced to functional capacity planning.
  • In middle management, where some unteachable inclinations towards management were necessary, the focus was on identifying the potential candidates and polishing rough edges to create an amicable and consensus-oriented organizational middleware layer. Succession planning was reduced to yield-rate-management: you had to put in enough “high-potential” into one end to ensure a minimal surviving talent pool of fungible general managers at the other.
  • The C-suite was the one place where the homogenizing forces of Organization Man culture were curtailed, since they would do too much damage. Some individualists had to be left over to actually lead, after all. Here succession planning was what it actually sounds like it ought to be: a careful and customized transfer of authority and responsibility between unique individuals. Heart replacement surgery in the body politic.

So what has changed? What are the differences in the world represented by Eric Raymond’s remark? Simple: increasingly, this three-pronged strategy will not do. All roles require the C-suite sort of unique handling. Work in every role is defined by the worker himself/herself, and acquires unique characteristics that reflect the worker’s whole personality, not just his/her resume. In fact, an information worker who is easily replaceable is almost certainly not worth replacing. If succession is not handled properly, the capacity for continuing the work leaves with the worker who defined it.

This is not to say Goldsmith’s ideas are irrelevant: they are actually even more important, because they now apply to a much broader population. The emphasis shifts, and new aspects are highlighted. Let’s take a look at the book through the lens of Eric Raymond’s remark.

Succession: Are You Ready?

The book is a tiny 107-page pocketbook from the Memo to the CEO series from Harvard Business Press. On an unrelated note, many of our problems today probably have a lot to do with the fact that our most important leaders no longer have the time to process bigger ideas than can be consumed on a single domestic flight. When they finally allow cellphones and Internet connectivity on planes, watch out for an unprecedented surge in C-suite stupidity. Anyhow, returning to the book, it focuses exclusively on the behavioral and interpersonal aspects of succession. So let’s do a quick summary and then ponder the application to non-CEOs and free-agent ronin.

Part I, Preparing Yourself, with two chapters titled Slowing Down and Letting Go and Moving On frames the idea in a very narrow way: for the CEO about to make a gracious exit into retirement. Forget revolving door employees; that is not a typical exit even for CEOs today. But the ideas within are broadly applicable. The big point: if you don’t prepare yourself mentally to adopt the right attitude, you will greedily hang on and mess up your ‘after’ as well as messing up your successor.

Part II, Choosing Your Successor, has two chapters as well, titled Choosing Who to Develop as Your Successor and Evaluating Internal Coaching Candidates. Despite the titles, the chapters aren’t about checklist matching. They are about self-awareness, and the ability to separate the DNA of your personality from the DNA of the work/effort you owned, and assessing the fit between the latter and the personality DNA of potential successors. Of course, there are other aspects, like knowledge, competence and technical skills, but the discussion rightly focuses on this DNA bit as the critical part. The rest is easy to assess and select for. The one point worth highlighting here is Goldsmith’s unapologetic endorsement of internal succession over external. But that’s a topic for another day.

Part III, Coaching Your Successor, with chapters titled Beginning The Coaching Process, and Becoming a CEO Coach-Facilitator, are the heart of the book. All the subtle pieces are treated. How do you handle your own lame-duck status with grace? How do you create the space required for the successor to evolve, personalize and own the project vision? How do you optimize the role around his/her strengths and relationships rather than attempting to make the coaching process a cloning process? There is quite a bit on bringing a professional executive coach into the equation.

Part IV, Passing the Baton has one chapter, Making a Great Exit. It covers the timing of when to let your successor know your decision, setting up the role for even greater accomplishments and not coming back or second-guessing the new leader through the media.

Overall, you could take the retiring-CEO-with-yacht narrative as is, and read the book as a disinterested spectator. Some of the material clearly has no relevance to anyone who isn’t ridiculously rich and coming off running a Fortune 500 company. You and I don’t need the friendly piece of advice “hire a personal assistant because you are used to one and can afford one even after you leave.” No and no. Most of us, if we ever make CEO, will do so in 1-person ‘eaglepreneur’ (a term coined by Dan Miller) corporations  that, at best, might bring in some vacation money if we are lucky. Trimming such pieces off, what do you get?

Succession Planning Everywhere

Eric Raymond’s quote was in the context of a work environment that is the exact opposite of the C-suite: one volunteer open-source coder taking over responsibility for a piece of open source software from another. It doesn’t get more elemental than that. No company, no staff, no secretaries, no boards to satisfy. Both are leaders, but without followers. Only one guy handing off a weekend project to another. The only semblence of organizational context is provided by Barcamps, email lists, discussion boards and the one class distinction provided by commit-authority (for people unfamiliar with the term, it is the privilege of modifying the core repository of code of major open source projects like Linux).

But even in this elemental context, every important issue that Goldsmith talks about is apparent. The biggest one being that the individuals on both sides of the handoff are unique, with different motivations, personalities and strengths. They also have different social networks and different amount of Whuffie capital. The person making the exit has to resist the temptation to microdefine the future of the role, set up autopilot structures, or retain control over strategy without responsibility. At a more subtle level, s/he has to figure out how to hand off increasingly consequential decisions to the successor even before the formal handoff, and not apply “I would have done it differently” logic. The incoming leader has to switch gears mentally from always having a higher authority to defer to, to a “Mom doesn’t live here” approach.

Somewhere in between these two extremes, most of us find a home. For us, succession issues come up when a project must be handed off to a new project manager or when a project grows to the point where a different type of leadership is required. And of course, when we leave an old job for a new one, but still have a psychological stake in our investments at the old job that haven’t yet paid off. There’s a part of us that hopes the project succeeds without us, so we can say, “I helped start that in the early days.” Another part though, secretly hopes the project will fail if we leave, so our sense of being irreplaceable is validated. That’s the psychological battleground for succession. I’ve encountered a successful project which at least 4 people claim to have started, and failures nobody acknowledges a role in; truly, success has many parents, and failure is an orphan.

Assuming you aren’t in a “glad to be rid of it” frame of mind (in which case you should ask honestly, if it isn’t worth your time, is it worth anybody else’s?), this whole process is a delicate, but fascinating one. Your self-awareness, empathy, other-awareness, clarity about the real needs of the role, are all tested. Most importantly, your surgical abilities, to separate your personality DNA from the project’s DNA, and then splice it into your successor’s personality DNA, are tested. And to think most people treat succession as a matter of bringing documentation up to date.

Succession Planning 2.0

Just because the world is no longer predictable enough to do long-range succession and scenario planning doesn’t mean succession planning has lost its relevance. What has changed is that it is no longer a macro-scale staff function. It is a micro-scale line function. Every information worker is responsible for the succession planning for his/her role. The HR/training department could not continue to carry this function even if it tried. Every role definition today includes the implicit commitment, “…and set up your successor for success if/when you move on to something else/somewhere else.”

At the heart of the 2.0 version is the remark I made earlier: If succession is not handled properly, the capacity for continuing the work leaves with the worker who defined it. Organizations have personalities (the deep counterpart of brands), and grand narratives. These have a persistence and self-defined existence only to the extent that it is possible to separate the uniqueness of individuals from the uniqueness of the work they define. This is perhaps Steve Jobs’ biggest failure as a major leader: it isn’t clear that there is an Apple DNA distinct from the Steve Jobs’ personality DNA.

To be real and organic, organizational identities must be more than, and separate from, the sum of individual identities. Yet the former must emerge organically from the latter, not be imposed as a shell called a “brand” on an undifferentiated, fungible mass of faceless and interchangeable commodity talent. You don’t get to this state with idle talk of “core values” and “core competencies.” Those merely represent the 1% of organizational identity that can be explicitly articulated on a large scale, and only serve to reinforce the collectivist element of organizational identity. The real challenge is to create a coherent, artistic, organic and always evolving organizational identity that remains inexpressible, but unmistakable, and captures the other 99% of identity. One that the brand and mission statement lag behind, rather than lead.

The only way to do this is if every individual becomes a skilled succession planner, and resolves the Goldsmith-Raymond dichotomy.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter