Successful Supervisor 22 – Foundations to Build Trust

April 16, 2017

We are all aware of things we can do that build higher trust. In my seminars on trust, I ask groups to name some things that build trust, and they quickly create a list of dozens of behaviors in just a few minutes.

For example, here are a few of the things typically named that will help to build trust:

• Operate with integrity
• Do what you say
• Use the Golden Rule
• Be respectful of others at all times
• Admit mistakes
• Be as transparent as possible

These actions and hundreds of others like them are needed to build and maintain trust at all levels of management. Each level has a different focus on why these things are important, and at the supervisor level employees look for these behaviors constantly.

Because of the span of control, supervisors must be alert to applying these behaviors in a consistent manner to avoid the perception of playing favorites, which is a major trust buster, especially among first level employees.

The conundrum is that while we know numerous things that will build trust within an organization, in most organizations there is still a serious lack of trust.

I believe the reason is that there are four conditions that form a foundation on which all of the other trust-building behaviors rest that makes them work. These four conditions provide a deep understanding of the nature of trust in an organization, so they act like the concrete blocks upon which we ultimately construct a lasting building.

This article will name these four conditions and describe why I believe having this foundation underneath the common behaviors gives them much more power to build trust. Then I will explain why these concepts are just as important at the supervisory level as they are at higher management levels.

Condition 1 – The First Law of Trust

Trust is reciprocal. You trust every person you know at some level, and that person also trusts you at some level. The levels are not always the same, and they fluctuate based on the transactions between you and the other person.

Any communication between the two of you will impact the trust level for both people. It may be face to face conversation, a phone call, e-mail or texting, or even body language at a meeting that impacts trust either positively or negatively.

Trust may go up in one direction but down in the other direction from the same transaction. It is a highly dynamic system.

When you extend more trust to another person, he or she will instinctively respond by showing more trust in you. This “First Law of Trust,” as I call it, is not true 100% of the time, but it is directionally right with such high frequency that it makes a pretty good law of nature.

If you want more trust with another person, find ways to show more trust first.

Condition 2 – Values-based Behaviors

When I begin work with new clients, I always ask if they operate from a set of values. Normally the senior leader is able to produce a list of some values that the group has adopted. Sometimes the values are on a plaque on the wall, and other times they are buried somewhere in a desk drawer.

I then ask the senior leaders point blank if they always follow the values, even when it means making a difficult decision.

The question is usually followed by a pregnant pause and finally someone says, “Well we try to follow the values at all times, but sometimes it is impossible.” While the answer is an honest one, it really signals a kind of hypocrisy that leads to organizational dry rot of trust.

The correct answer must be “yes” at all times in order to preserve trust.

When leaders adopt values they cannot abide by in all circumstances, they set themselves up for failure. That is why one tempting value: “People are our most important asset” is a dangerous one.

If people are really our most important asset, then when there is a downturn in business, we will keep the workforce and sell buildings or other assets to survive. Few companies actually do that, so it is unwise to adopt that phrase as a core value. You simply must abide by the values you advertise or trust becomes a casualty.

The specific values adopted at the supervisor level must mirror the values set at higher levels. There may be some different phrasing to make it apply to first line employees, but the intent needs to add up to the same conclusion or the organization will not be aligned.

Condition 3 – Balanced Accountability

The word “accountability” has become more popular in recent years. It is a shame that in most organizations accountability takes the form of a “gotcha” mentality where all accountability discussions are negative.

My observation is that most people on most days go to work intent on doing the right things for the right reasons. They need to be held accountable in a positive way for the things they are doing right and in a corrective way for the things that did not get done correctly or on time.

If the accountability discussions were not always focused on missed opportunities, then people would not get the impression that the only time they hear from supervision is when they mess up.

I invented the phrase “hold people procountable,” which means that we need to feedback performance that is directionally right as well as the corrective feedback. The nature of the feedback needs to be proportional to the holistic nature of the performance.

This philosophy should be spread across the entire organization, but it is particularly important for the supervisor, who is working at the critical junction between management and the workers. Negative accountability discussions are often the downfall of an inexperienced supervisor.

Condition 4 – Reinforce Candor

This fourth condition I believe has more power to create trust than any other leadership behavior. That is why it is one of the foundational conditions. It consists of creating an environment of low fear where people believe it is a good thing to point out areas where the behavior of higher managers is monitored for consistency.

If something appears to be inconsistent with our values or ethical standards, employees know they will be rewarded rather than punished for bringing it up.

I believe “the absence of fear is the incubator of trust,” and the logic holds at all levels of the organization.

Supervisors can improve the level of trust by making sure all employees know their observations are valued and appreciated. In practice it is not easy to reward someone who points out that some of your behaviors appear to be hypocritical.

Make a special effort to make sure when an employee questions a decision or action on your part that the employee walks away glad that he brought it up.

If the preceding four elements are in place, then I believe the foundation is laid where all the other things that create higher trust will be highly effective.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 16 – Myths and Truths About Leadership

March 5, 2017

I want to share a few of my theories on leadership that may be helpful to supervisors. I believe there are misconceptions about what makes a great leader.

These myths are very common, and you will recognize all of them quickly. I will follow with some things that I believe are required for great leaders and explain the rationale for each one.

Myth 1 – You need to be brilliant

The capacity to be a great leader does not rest on intelligence. Of course, you do need some level of mental capability. Someone who cannot add numbers and comprehend or speak the language is not likely to make a strong leader.

On the other extreme, there have been many brilliant people who fail at leadership because they are aloof or have poorly developed social skills.
If you have a reasonably strong mind, that is sufficient to do well as a leader.

It is much more important to focus on developing Emotional Intelligence than it is to obtain a PhD.

Myth 2 – You need to be perfect

The best leaders recognize that they are fallible human beings. They work hard to develop and maintain a culture where people who work for them have high respect, but beyond that they do not lose sleep trying to be perfect.

When they make a mistake, they admit it and ask for forgiveness. This behavior endears them to their employees.

The opposite is true for poor leaders. They are bundles of nerves because they have not built a culture of trust, and employees are like coiled snakes just waiting for some kind of mistake so they can strike.

Poor leaders worry about “spinning” every statement just right so people will not nail them to the wall. Great leaders are able to relax and be authentic.

Myth 3 – You need to look the part

One of the best leaders I know you would not be able to pick out from how he dresses. On most days he is indistinguishable from the people who work for him. Oh sure, if there is a customer visit or a Board meeting, he will put on a jacket and tie, but he would rather be in jeans and a checkered shirt.

On the flip side, I recall one leader who was always dressed to the nines. He wore cufflinks and always had a silk kerchief in his jacket pocket. He did not connect well with his direct reports or others in the organization because he appeared to be (and was) aloof.

Myth 4 – You need to be a work-a-holic

Great leaders do work hard, of course, but they also value balance for themselves and for the people who work for them. These leaders put a high value on family relationships and also get to know the family members of people who work for them.

Myth 5 – You need a big ego

In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins reported that the best leaders have two common characteristics. They are passionate people about what they are trying to accomplish, and they are humble. They are more like the “plow horse” instead of the “show horse.”

Now let’s take a look at some truths about being a good leader. Of course, many of the truths can be the opposite of the myths, but there are some other conditions as well.

Truth 1 – You must operate from a strong set of values

Leaders need to articulate a set of values for the organization and model them all of the time. If there is even a sniff of hypocrisy in terms of walking the talk on values, it will derail this person from being a successful leader.

Beyond that, the leader needs to preach why these particular values are important for the enterprise and insist that all people in the group model the values at all times.

Groups that report to a leader with weak or nebulous values often fall victim to unethical behaviors that pretty much guarantee failure.

Truth 2 – You must have high Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence allows the leader to understand how others see her with accuracy. Leaders with low Emotional Intelligence usually have blind spots and make incorrect assumptions about how they are coming across.

Further, leaders with high Emotional Intelligence rarely shoot from the hip. They take the time to understand situations well before reacting out of emotions. They also have the ability to read others well, so they make wise decisions on how to handle delicate or emotionally charged conversations.

Unlike raw intelligence (IQ) and leadership style, Emotional Intelligence is actually rather easy to learn. My favorite book on the topic is “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Bradberry and Greaves. The skills are easily understood, and the more you practice, the higher your Emotional Intelligence will become.

Truth 3 – You must operate with integrity at all times

Leaders are always under a microscope. They cannot hide their actions or even their intentions. People in the organization will find ways to test the level of integrity until they are convinced the leader can pass the test routinely.

Integrity also means treating people the right way for the right reason. It does not mean treating everyone the same way, because individuals have different needs. It does mean being fair and keeping each employee’s best interest at heart.

Truth 4 – You must communicate with precision

Every written and spoken word is subject to scrutiny and must pass the test for being congruent with the values and goals of the organization. It does not matter if you are texting an opinion or explaining a new policy in a Town Hall Meeting, the ability to communicate exactly what you mean is crucial.

Likewise the ability to listen to people deeply and grasp the full intention is essential.

Beyond written and verbal communications is a whole lexicon of body language cues that also must be consistent. This area is where many leaders fall short because they are not even aware of the signals being sent with their body language.

Few leaders understand the complexity of body language and the fact that the vast majority of body language is sent and read subconsciously. Doing well at body language is a challenge for most leaders, because they simply have not had much education on the science.

I cannot understand how an individual can get an MBA without ever having a single course in Body Language anywhere along the line. It is a crime. In my MBA curriculum there was no discussion of body language at all, so I have studied it on my own.

Truth 5 – You must build, maintain, and repair trust

I believe trust is the most important concept in leadership. Reason: In studying effective leadership for more than 40 years, I observe that those leaders who can obtain and maintain trust create a culture in which all of the other leadership skills work well to the benefit of the organization.

Without a foundation of trust created by the behaviors of the most senior leaders, the culture will sputter and struggle despite the best efforts of the remainder of the organization.

I have written about trust extensively in other articles, and an important ingredient is also repairing damaged trust. The element of trust is a fragile thing that can easily be damaged. Great leaders immediately leap to repair any damaged trust to make it stronger than it was before it was compromised.

These are just a few of the myths and truths about leaders that I teach in my leadership classes. There is an infinite supply of both of these, and I could go on for many more pages, but I believe the ones listed above are the most powerful ones. If you are on the right side of these 10 issues, chances are you are doing well as a leader and a supervisor.

This article is a part in a series on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

End Manager and Worker Misalignment

May 21, 2016

Between my own consulting and online teaching of MBA students all over the world, I have been fortunate to study the cultures of literally thousands of organizations: large and small, profit and not for profit, government, and NGOs.

Once I get past the window dressing of how these organizations wish to appear to the outside world, I find some hurtful things that are common. One of the most frequent problems is a kind of “we versus they” thinking between the management levels and the workers. This article examines why this symptom is so common and suggests eight ways to mitigate the problem.

The fundamental cause of what I call the “two sides mentality” is a lack of true alignment. Most organizations have invested big bucks into developing a “strategy,” which includes things like Values, Vision, Mission, Purpose, Key Result Areas, Tactics, and Measures. These essential elements are usually developed by small teams of managers who cloister themselves away in a hotel or something for a few days to bang out the strategy.

Then, as the ink is drying on the pages, the discussion turns to how this brilliant plan is going to be communicated to the mass of workers in order to get “buy in” from the people “in the trenches.” Eventually there is a “roll out” of the information which inevitably is communicated BY the managers TO the workers. Notice the hackneyed expressions I used above are the actual words that are used, even today in the real world – amazing! If you listen, you will hear them.

The presentation is given to half-asleep people who are sitting in neat rows trying not to yawn. The data dump is followed by a few polite questions, and then everybody files out of the conference room and goes to lunch. The managers meet in their own dining space and congratulate themselves on clarifying the strategy and getting buy-in from the workers.

In reality, what happened is that the managers illustrated, once again, that they are clueless about how the culture is created by their actions, not their words. Their attempt to get everybody “on the same page” only served to drive the wedge between the management team and the people doing the work deeper. How is it possible for managers to miss the reality that they are doing the same thing hoping for a different result?

The fact that some organizations actually do achieve true alignment of purpose throughout the organization (my personal estimate is less than 20% do) gives me hope that not only is it possible, but with excellent leadership it is easier and faster than the conventional route. Organizations that achieve true alignment always blow away groups that have fractured perspectives.

In their book “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations,” Bob and Gregg Vanourek have a whole chapter on alignment. It is an excellent model. One key point they make is that the elements of the strategy need to be developed collaboratively. Great leaders know that for people to truly embrace a concept, they must put their fingerprints on it while it is being developed. The authors write about how the alignment is a kind of cascade rather than a lay on. The principles and information are generated organically and developed carefully by the whole team over time.

The collaborative process allows all people in the organization to feel true ownership of the plan, which becomes the foundation for alignment. It is alignment that erases the feeling of one side versus the other, because we all understand what we are trying to do and are pulling in the same direction. So how can leaders create this kind of culture? Here are eight ideas that can help any organization reduce the “we versus they” thinking and thereby obtain the full energy that is latent in the entire team.

1. Leaders need to listen more

In the urgency to survive and the reality of a flat world, it is a real challenge to make the effort and take the time to engage people at all levels about the future direction. Of primary importance, it is necessary to agree upon a set of values that the entire team not only adopts but pledges 100% to live by, even when it is difficult. It is not enough to simply state the values. For true alignment, all of the values must be demonstrated by all people all the time.

Clarifying a compelling vision of the future is equally vital. If every person in the organization feels that he or she is going to be much better off once the vision is achieved, you have a powerful force multiplier for alignment.

2. Involve everyone in identifying the direction

As ideas are put forth, look for common themes and keep working the information into a model where each person feels ownership. Once people realize they are actually part of the generation process, they will be much more inclined to embrace the final product. When one part of the strategy seems impossible, don’t discard it. Rather, examine the blockage and get creative with a way to accomplish it anyway in an ethical, values-based way.

3. Don’t say things you cannot do

So often I see a values plaque in the lobby of a company indicating “People are our most important asset,” only to find the managers in the back conference room trying to figure out details of the impending downsizing. Once a stated value reveals managerial hypocrisy, it does more harm than good to put it on the plaque. It fosters a “They say it, but they don’t mean it” mentality that enables “us versus them” and works against the alignment.

4. Don’t “Roll Out” the “Program”

I have found that having a big roll out program is often the kiss of death. Employees smell a lay-on coming a mile away, and they will go to the meeting with earplugs firmly inserted. A roll out meeting may allow managers to check the box called “communicate” but it does little to build alignment. Instead of the big fanfare, share the information at small family groups with good opportunity for dialog, and indicate this was derived by all of us. Stress that the information on the strategy is how we intend to conduct ourselves from now on. Repeat that information at every possible point and illustrate it when decisions are based on it. For example, a manager might say, “We have recommended this vendor as the supplier for our parts because their demonstrated integrity matches our own value of integrity.”

5. Be willing to admit mistakes

In changing a culture, there will be small, or sometimes big, mistakes made along the way. The world is a messy place, and it is impossible to reach perfection. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “If we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” When managers are willing to admit they made a mistake along the way, it demonstrates to people they are sincere about the culture change. Also when managers admit their vulnerability and do not punish people for pointing out apparent inconsistencies, it builds higher trust because it reduces fear in the workplace. Lower fear means less opportunity for “we versus they” thinking.

6. Build and value trust

Trust becomes the glue that holds the whole organization together in good times and in difficult times. The culture of any organization is a reflection of the behaviors of the senior leaders more than any other single factor. If the culture is split so the workers do not trust management, then every initiative, strategy, and outcome will be compromised. Leaders need to understand and step up to this incredible challenge. True alignment requires the attention and effort of everyone on the team, but the leaders set the tone and model the way.

7. Don’t get derailed by short term thinking

The daily and monthly pressures of any business will test the resolve of the team. In his program “Life is a Journey,” Brian Tracy points out that “obstacles are not put there to obstruct but to instruct.” The whole team needs to learn from the challenges and focus on the long term vision to navigate the speed bumps with grace. The very reason for having a strategy in the first place is to focus energy on the big picture when the vicissitudes of the real world try to blow us off course.

8. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones

The atmosphere can be moved from surviving an oppressive string of burdensome crosses to bear to one of hitting the tops of the waves as we water ski to victory. The trick is to recognize and appreciate all of the good things that are going on. Teach people that the reinforcement should come from all levels, not just the managers. Once the workers start practicing reinforcement of others, magic things begin to happen.

There are numerous other ideas and helpful tips that can add to the success of the team. The main point of this article is that it is possible to create real alignment where everyone in the organization is truly excited about what is being accomplished, and that culture eliminates the “we versus they” mentality between workers and managers. I wish more organizations could experience the fantastic boost to performance and the true joy of working in such an environment. It all rests on the quality of leaders to create that kind of culture.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at 585-392-7763. Website BLOG He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.

Categories of Trust

June 20, 2015

gears and teamworkI have always thought of trust as a single concept: I either trust you or I do not trust you at any time.

It seemed simple enough, but after studying the phenomenon for over 20 years, I have come to realize there are many different flavors of trust with other people that we experience all the time. Trust is a set of interlocking concepts that form a pattern for each person we know.

Here are a few examples:

Reliance:  I might trust you because I know you have my back and will do what is in my best interest.

Consistency: I might trust you because you are consistent and always do what you say.

Common Values: I might trust you because we share common values.

Safety:  I might trust you because I know I can tell you what I really think without feeling punished in some way.

So I now envision trust as it relates to others as a complex set of concepts about my relationships with them. I now think of it as a mosaic or pattern rather than a singular lens.

That pattern changes based on the transactions between myself and other people. The types of trust are ever evolving and either gaining or losing strength.

Picture the concept of trust as being like a kaleidoscope with an infinite number of complex designs that change as you move through time. The glass pieces that make up the design are a fixed number, but the mirrors in the kaleidoscope, just like the different categories of trust, make new patterns as you experience changes in your relations with others.

Exercise for you: Today, as you interface with people, try to visualize the different patterns of trust you have with them. Notice how the pattern shifts as the day progresses and transactions occur.

Witness the beauty and variety of trust in your relationships. Each transaction has the potential to increase or reduce the trust based on your perception of what is going on.

Understanding that trust is a complex set of interrelated concepts will allow you to experience the richness of your relationships with others. It may become confusing or frustrating at times, but that is the reality of life.

As you see the wonderful patterns of trust unfold in front of your eyes, you will begin to experience the beauty of life and relationships at a higher level.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to


Write Them Down

May 16, 2015

Writing businessmanAs I visit companies of all types and sizes, I am intrigued with the number of organizations that have not committed their strategy into written form. I ask if they have values, and often they start talking about honesty, integrity, customer focus, or employee satisfaction. I get some vague statements about ethics thrown in for good measure.

Then I ask where the values are written. Sometimes the leader can pull a dusty old paper out of a drawer where the items vaguely resemble what I was just told.

More often I am told the values are posted in the conference room and the break room. I go and look, and there is indeed a slightly-torn or smudged paper on the bulletin board.

If I ask the employees about them, they tell me “Oh yes, we have the values posted, but “they” do not follow them.” If the values are posted but not followed, they do more harm than good, because they serve as a reminder of the hypocrisy.

There are several organizations where the words are in the minds of the executives but not even written on paper, let alone implanted in the hearts of the employees where they can do some good.

The three simple rules with values are 1) write them down, 2) talk about them every possible chance, and 3) follow them. If you are missing any of these three steps, then you are forfeiting most of the power of having values in the first place.

The exact same discussion applies to the vision of an organization. If the vision is not committed to writing and included in discussions with employees, it loses its power to direct the daily activities of the population to move toward the future with confidence.

These two things are most important to write down, but I believe the entire strategy should be committed to written form. That would include the following things at a minimum: vision, mission, values, behaviors, strategies, tactics, and measures.

Many organizations make a production out of generating the strategy that the resulting tome is way too heavy for the employees to lift, let alone read and understand.

I usually reduce the entire strategic framework to a single sheet of paper. On the front side we have the vision, mission, values and behaviors.

On the reverse side there is neat array of the top 4-6 strategies (too many strategies defeats the purpose of focusing effort) along with a few major tactics for each strategy and precisely what measure we intend to use to track our progress for each tactic. I like to laminate the document as a way to indicate legitimacy.

Usually the entire process of developing the single sheet framework takes from 8-16 hours of interface time with a management team. That is enough time to engage everyone in the process and far less that the burdensome six to 18 month process that creates open hatred for the process among the staff.

If you drive an efficient and high energy process to create the strategy for your organization and commit the resulting framework to paper then you have a much higher chance of being a successful organization.

Always Go Back to Your Foundation

May 3, 2014

FoundationMost of us have values that we try to live by. We acquired our values very early in life, often before we can remember.

Usually values are passed on by parents, but there are other sources such as the church, school, or a close relative. Values usually remain with us throughout our lives, changing very little, if at all. Our experiences in life will color how we view the values, but they normally do not change.

In 2010, I heard an inspirational speech by the great Wintley Phipps. If you don’t recognize the name, you would recognize his golden baritone voice singing religious songs like “Amazing Grace.” Wintley gave the keynote address at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida.

The title of his speech was “The HPLP Gene.” The whole hour was devoted to convincing us that we each have a Gene called “Helping People Live their Potential.”

He recounted numerous stories from his life where his “heroes” taught him great lessons and how those things became his foundation as he caught the HPLP Gene.

If you are interested in listening to this excellent speech, it is available for free on YouTube

His main point is that those people who pay it forward are living the life that God intended for us, and that behavior will provide us huge rewards in life. Even if nobody remembers us, “History will record that there lived a man, there lived a woman who had the Gene: The Helping People Live Their Potential Gene.”

One vivid story I recall was about a skyscraper in New York City. At one point the building developed a serious crack on the 42nd floor. They called for the Structural Engineer to come in and figure out what was causing this problem before serious damage was done.

When the building owner came in and went to the 42nd floor, he could not find the engineer. They told the owner, “Oh no – he is not here; he is down in the 6th basement.”

When the owner got to the 6th basement, he asked the engineer what he was doing down there because the problem was on the 42nd floor. The engineer told him, “The crack may be on the 42nd floor, but your problem is down here in the 6th basement.”

Apparently, one of the guards for the building wanted to build a garage but did not have the money for materials. So, every day before going home, he would go down to the 6th basement and chisel a brick out of the foundation to take home in his bag. After he had done this for several years, a crack appeared on the 42nd floor.

Wintley told the audience that when things are not working right in our lives, we should not be looking for the cause on the 42nd floor. “Go back to your foundation! Go back to the HPLP Gene and make sure you are helping people live their potential.”

Whether individuals or organizations, we need to heed the advice of Wintley Phipps. When things seem wrong in our lives, we need to go back to our foundation, back to our values, and make sure we are living up to the lessons we learned early in life.

Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if every individual actually wrote out his or her values and every organization did the same thing. Much more powerful than writing them, however, is to be absolutely fanatical about living those values every single day.

Excellence in Succession

February 22, 2014

Rubber Duck LineSuccession planning ought to be a natural progression of training and grooming for the next generation of leaders in an organization. Often the process is flawed either out of neglect, or missteps.

This article outlines some of the issues with succession planning for key leadership positions and offers some ideas to make the process more robust.

The need for good succession planning increases at the higher levels in any organization. Individual contributors do need training before assuming a new job, but they can be replaced rather easily.

With higher level managers, the skills are more critical and selection as well as preparation is much more demanding.

Top leaders should be well groomed on all the policies and nuances of running the organization before taking over.

There should be a specific succession planning process for all key jobs in any organization, which includes who is ready to step in immediately and who is being groomed for future roles.

The obvious reason is that we never know when someone is going to leave for one reason or another. The transition may take place over a period of years or abruptly in a few hours depending on circumstances.

I remember one extremely short transition where my organization was doubled in size. The previous manager and I had only a few minutes for him to cross train me, and then he was gone.

He showed me where the personnel files were kept, wished me luck, gave me the keys to the office, and left. One thing I appreciated was the ability to start fresh without being colored by his paradigms and biases, and yet there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the operation.

I did survive the transition, but it would have been easier if there had been more time to understand his job.

The activities of succession planning are much broader than most people realize. They encompass everything from general cross training for bench strength to identifying high potential people for future roles, to mentoring, and even job rotation.

In fact, if you think about it, at the higher levels of leadership, the majority of daily activities could be slotted in some part of the succession process.

Good succession planning takes a lot of time and energy. It is something that should be going on at a conscious level nearly every day, yet it is often a hidden process that the rank and file do not understand.

They only see the result. When Jack leaves, Ann is discovered to be fully capable of replacing him. The process sometimes takes on a highly political feel, since only certain people are involved in many of the discussions.

This lack of full information can cause people to become anxious because they do not know what is going to happen. The best approach is to be as transparent as possible.

It is too bad that succession planning takes a back burner in some organizations. This is true for several reasons:

• Most leaders are overburdened and have little time to think about long term development. This is a huge mistake. Leaders must make the time.

• There is a fear of setting up an implied competition and tension between contenders.

• People may interpret succession discussions as meaning the incumbent is trying to leave early. This incorrect signal could imply a lack of commitment.

• External replacement versus internal can be demoralizing for understudies.

• Succession is a highly emotional topic. People get nervous because the change involves their job and future.

William Rothwell of Penn State University is one of the recognized experts in Succession Planning. He suggested there are at least 10 key steps that need to be included in any succession planning process: (Rothwell, W.J. 2001, Effective Succession Planning 2nd edition. New York: AMACOM.)

1. Clarify expectations for Succession.
2. Establish competency models.
3. Conduct individual assessments.
4. Create performance management system.
5. Assess individual potential.
6. Create development process.
7. Institute Individual development plans.
8. Establish a talent inventory.
9. Establish accountability for making the system work.
10. Evaluate the results.

Rothwell also shared a list of 6 of the biggest mistakes in succession planning:

1. Assuming success at one level will guarantee success at a higher level
2. Assuming bosses are the best judge of who should be promoted
3. Assuming that promotions are entitlements
4. Trying to do too much too fast
5. Giving no thought to what to call it
6. Assuming that everyone wants a promotion

The best approach is to have a formal succession process for all professional jobs in an organization and let people know what it is.

It should be part of the routine work on a daily basis instead of something managers think about only when someone is getting ready to retire or gives the customary two-week notice.

I believe succession is a fundamental leadership process, because the highest calling for any leader is to grow the next generation of leaders.