Do Succession Planning not (Suck)session abdication

New Rule:  Do Succession Planning not (Suck)session abdication

“Leadership is influence: Nothing More, Nothing Less,” said John Maxwell.  I believe this is true.  To quote Michael Grinder, “we have fallen in love with the influence of power, how about falling in love with the power of influence.” You can read thousands of books on leadership looking for the latest technique, strategy or a set of steps leading to nirvana.  THERE ARE NO SILVER BULLETS. Quit looking for them. In the final analysis, it is the authenticity, honesty, and actions (AHA) that make positive leadership for the organization.  The second part of leadership is who is around you?

No one leads alone.  Success is a team endeavor. Professionally, without highly skilled administrative assistants (usually called secretaries), knowledgeable assistant principals, and committed school leaders, teachers/counselors, etc. not much happens or changes.  Sustainability suffers while we go through the ups and downs of leadership changes.

Noel Tichy (1997) in his book titled The Leadership Engine wrote that leaders have two major responsibilities.  First, be the head learner.  Roland Barth (1990) mentioned that years ago in his book Improving Schools from Within.  The second goal, Tichy says is needed for leaders, is developing other leaders.  Early in my career I never thought that was my responsibility. Yikes, I have to do that too.

Marshall Goldsmith (2009), in a book titled Succession states “There is no research that shows external CEOs to be superior to internal CEOs in producing long-term returns to the corporation.“ Hmmm, might this apply to schools and districts too.  Of course, it really depends on whether or not the system has committed to building leadership throughout the system.  If it is left to happenstance, there will be pockets of preparedness with deeper pockets with holes in them. Leadership is too important to leave to chance.

Former 3M leadership trainer, Michael Ayers, told me once that every organization should have two or three people ready, willing and able to take the reins of leadership when a vacancy occurs.  Think about it.  People get into car accidents, develop debilitating diseases, die, move, get married, etc.  Who is ready to take your job, in the system, right now?

Here is a question from the book Succession: “if you were hit by a bus tomorrow, who could take your place?”

  • Do a cost-benefit analysis.
  • What are the costs of bringing in an outsider?
  • What are the potential benefits?
  • What are the costs of promoting a candidate from within?
  • What are the potential benefits?

When an opening occurs, which is sometimes planned and sometimes unexpected, there can be a sense of panic. Who will fill the position?  Many times the district goes out to do an ‘intergalactic search.’ Personally, I haven’t seen that work too often.  Lots of money spent on search firms who already have their stable of candidates.  They get paid based on placement.  Sometimes that works.  And, there are times when the district absolutely needs to go outside. Why not develop talent inside the system to be more prepared for transitions?

One problem is if you always go inside, organizational incest happens.  If you always go outside, the message to inside talent is, find a job outside the system.  As in most cases, the answer is both/and, not either/or.  The challenge is to develop inside talent so there can be a mix.

Several states have created alternative certification to answer the need to fill vacancies for principals and superintendents.  Yes, there are good people outside of education and that sometimes works.  Unfortunately, more often than not, lacking the understanding of schools and systems, outsiders have knowledge and skill gaps that can become overwhelming. The people inside the system then has to compensate for those gaps.

Goldsmith asks three simple questions:

  1. What are this person’s existing strengths – that will help her be a great CEO in the future?
  2. What are this person’s developmental challenges – which he may need to overcome in order for him to be a great CEO?
  3. If you are this person’s coach, what specific suggestions would you give her- either strategic or tactical – that, if followed, would help her become a great CEO?

Peter Drucker worked until his death at 96. He was never interested in retiring. I learned that making a difference means a lot more than making a living. I am fond of an African Proverb: When an old person dies, a library burns.  Let’s not let the library burn.  Let’s learn and stand on the shoulders of giants as Newton proclaimed.

For a leader, If you look into the future and see nothing that looks exciting, you’ll be tempted to hang on longer than you should. Develop talent before you need it.  In a crisis, it is too late and you may get burned.

Make a Great Exit. You can if you have talent waiting in the wings. You’ll be tempted by board members to stay on the board or press to become the “non-executive chairman.” Fight to end temptation. Show some class on your way out. Do whatever you can to make your successor a winner. Get over your own ego.

Frank Wagner’s book (2015), The Power of Total Commitment tells a story about succession planning.  Here are a few of the excerpts from his work that applies to the topic of succession. As he describes a new CEO following a very good person, three truths, in particular, stand out for me in reading Frank’s new edition. He quotes Jim Kouzes:

  1. Values drive commitment. People want to know what you stand for and believe in. They want to know your values and beliefs, what you really care about, and what keeps you awake at night. They want to know who most influenced you, the events that shaped your attitudes, and the experiences that prepare you for the job. They want to know what drives you, what makes you happy, and what ticks you off. They want to know what you’re like as a person, and why you want to be their leader. They want to know if you play an instrument, compete in sports, go to the movies, or enjoy the theater. They want to know about your family, what you’ve done, and where you’ve traveled. They want to understand your personal story. They want to know why they ought to be following you.
  1. You either lead by example, or you don’t lead at all. People can’t commit to a leader who isn’t credible. And, what is credibility behaviorally? When we asked this question, the answer came back loud and clear: You must do what you say you will do. As Sam says, “I realized no one escapes from leading by example. The only question is, what example are we setting?
  2. The best leaders are the best learners. leadership can be learned in a variety of ways. It can be learned through active experimentation, observation of others, study in the classroom or reading books, or simply reflecting on one’s own and others’ experiences. What was more important was the extent to which individuals engaged in whatever style worked for them Which comes first, learning or leading? Learning comes first. When people are predisposed to be curious and want to learn something new, they are much more likely to get better at it than those who don’t become fully engaged Learning is the master skill.

Frank suggests some questions to ask yourself at the end of the day.

  • Did I help our customers today?
  • Did I help in achieving any of our key results?
  • Did I help our people today?
  • Did I help our Company’s mission and strategy?
  • Was I a good role model of our Company’s values?

“The most insidious disease in business is complacency. (I believe this is true in the education world as well). I call it psychosclerosis: the hardening of the attitudes.”   F.G. “Buck” Rodgers This is why learning is so important.  I want people who are intellectually curious to be leaders.  They keep learning and coming up with great ideas.

One of my favorite quotes Frank included in his book is: ”Anyone who has had a bull by the tail knows five or six things more than someone who hasn’t.”  Mark Twain.  Ah, experience. The elders usually have bruises and healed cuts from being in the trenches.  I respect that and can learn from those people. Another example from Wagner’s book is: “The world is full of people who intellectually possess knowledge. They have a good understanding of commitment at the cerebral level. But, far too many of them never translate this understanding into real action. “  Remember, people, watch what you do more than what you say.

It takes courage to go into uncharted territory.  Old maps used to say ‘be there dragons.’  Yes, the unknown can be scary.  It also can provide new positive approaches to current dilemmas. So, maybe we don’t have to keep doing the same thing expecting different results. I’ve seen versions of this attributed to Einstein, Rita Mae Brown, and others.  What I am suggesting is leadership succession takes planning, people development, and courage.  Leaders, plan for your departure.  Schools need competence continuity by leaders to keep what is working, ask questions about why we do things the way we do, and the courage to change what is not working.

Develop leadership before you need it.  Leaders deserve it.  Teachers and parents deserve it.  Most of all, students deserve our best.  Do succession planning so we don’t have a ‘suck’ session by default.


Barth, R.  (1990).  Improving schools from within.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Goldsmith. M. (2009). Succession: are you ready? Boston: Harvard business press.

Tichy. N.  (1997).  The leadership engine.  New York: HarperCollins.

Wagner, Frank. (2015). The Power of Total Commitment.  SCC Marshall Goldsmith


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