I originally wanted to title this article, “Ode to Mrs. Ware” as an acknowledgment of the great leadership of Lorraine Ware, the Principal of Red Cedar Elementary School in East Lansing. At Red Cedar, she led a team of dedicated teachers and staff to create a warm, fun learning environment for the kindergarten through fourth grade students from 40 different countries.
In conversation with Mrs. Ware and with others these past couple of months, I noticed two patterns showing up — leadership and succession planning.
In two separate conversations with Mrs. Ware and with my new client, Chris, both told me that when they started in their leadership roles, they felt pressure to know all the answers and to be able to solve all the issues that came up. This is typical of many when they first receive a promotion. Then, after that first year of learning the ropes, Lorraine and Chris started to reach out and tap into the talents of their team members. Now when an issue comes up, Mrs. Ware tells her team about it, asks for volunteers, and in five minutes has 10 people in her office to help her figure out a solution.
Chris does the same thing with his team. He asks someone to take the lead on a project. He is still monitoring and available to help, but he has given the reins to someone else. This does two things – it frees Chris up to focus on more strategic business areas and it gives his team member the opportunity to develop as a leader.
Leadership can happen at all levels, not just the C suite. We just need to give people the opportunity to take on leadership roles and to be part of the solution.
This year my colleague, Ross Woodstock, and I have been facilitating a leadership development program called The Fit Leader’s Program. In our first session, we have participants define their current reality by rating 20 different leadership skills and behaviors. One of the statements that generates a lot of discussion is, “I know who my successor is.” This gets people to stop in their tracks. Most participants don’t know who their successor is and have not spent much time thinking about it (mainly because they are so busy with their ever-growing To Do lists.)
My client, Brian, is the IT Director of an organization of 1,900 employees. In a recent conversation with the CEO, Brian showed the CEO what he was doing to develop his two “lieutenants.” Brian spent time thinking about his successor and also what each of his two managers needed in terms of development. He sent them to conferences, he gave them projects to stretch their skills. And you know what? In that conversation with the CEO, he said Brian was the only member of the management team who had thought about succession planning and had actually put a plan in place.
So, as we enjoy these lazy days of summer, spend some time thinking about succession planning. Who could take over for you? What would they need to be a successful leader in a new role? And then when September rolls around, hit the ground running with opportunities for them to participate in conferences, leadership development programs and special projects. Take a direct report to an important meeting. Co-present with one of your team members to help him or her get comfortable with public speaking. Start being purposeful in spending time thinking and acting on succession planning. Your team members will appreciate the attention and the effort.
Thank you to the leaders who delight in developing others, who help team members step outside their comfort zone, who create that safe environment to try something new. Thanks to our current leaders – in business, in government and in our schools. And a big thanks to the fabulous Mrs. Ware.