Like a lot of people, one of the things I do in my down time or during a workout is catch up on Netflix. Recently, I’ve been watching a show called “The Ranch” starring Sam Elliott as Beau Bennett. Beau is an interesting character. He is the patriarch of the Iron River Ranch, and he’s very clear that there’s only one way to build a ranch and raise a quality herd of cattle – his way. Everyone needs to just do what they’re told. It doesn’t matter if it’s his sons or others helping him; he has very little confidence anyone will ever run the ranch quite like he does.

When Leaders Are a Business

It is not unusual to experience this phenomenon in business – a leader with no identified successor. It can manifest a number of ways. In our nineteen years of consulting, we’ve seen our share of “Beau Bennetts” – a CEO or leader (in any role) who doesn’t think they can be replaced or that there isn’t a suitable successor who would do things “the right way.”  We’ve also seen the opposite: leaders who believe the next generation will “figure it out,” like they did, so in their mind, there is no real need to “groom” a successor.  Finally, we also see highly regarded CEOs or leaders with good intentions whose organizations have become dependent on the CEO/leader’s actions and persona.  Thus, team members can’t envision a company future beyond the current leader.
Usually, the problem isn’t that there aren’t suitable successors.  The issue lies in the way decisions are made, actions are taken, and day-to-day operations are run.  It also lies in the leader’s focus on being replaceable by design.

When Leaders Have a Business

If you’re a leader or a CEO, one of your top priorities in building a healthy and sustainable organization is to lessen the dependence on you. In other words, you need to intentionally “work yourself out of a job.” It doesn’t mean that you don’t lead. You still will. It’s how you lead that ensures your organization will be sustainable.

Here are three critical steps that you can take to lead more effectively and make yourself replaceable:

Develop Your Leadership Team

Start with your leadership team. Explore the mission, vision, and values of the organization with them. Talk with them about their career aspirations and the future of the company. Discuss how they want to grow and what they want to learn about the business. Engage in conversation around their talents and development needs. Help them set appropriate and relevant goals. Give them candid feedback. Have frequent and continual one-on-one coaching conversations about the business, the outcomes, and their development. In short, invest in them now to know you have the right team for the future.

Share Management Information

A lot of CEOs and leadership teams are very close to the vest with “management information” – key client metrics, the financials, and general business performance. If you want to have a team and emerging leaders who can take over and lead, educate them about the business. Nearly every company has core economic indicators, both leading and lagging, that are monitored by the CEO. Let others in. Engender thinking. Educate them on what those indicators are, how to use the data, why it is important, and how their departments or divisions contribute. Embrace passing on knowledge to empower them to act.

Put Someone Else in the Arena

The ability to trust someone else with your most coveted tasks, clients, or prospects or can sometimes be the most daunting hurdle to overcome in making ourselves replaceable. Similar to Beau Bennett, we all know no one can do it quite like we do.

However, your job as a leader is not to create clones of yourself. Rather it is to help your team members contribute their best thinking and action to the organization at a high level. A big piece of that is delegating and empowering them to take ownership, develop critical thinking, and make decisions that are anchored in the best interest of the business. To do that, they need some experience in the arena. Those skills are developed through stretch assignments, special projects, or exposure to key developmental experiences (e.g., super complex client, complicated prospect, leading a strategic initiative, etc.). Proactively identifying these opportunities and matching them to talent is a leader’s responsibility.

Which Way Do You Lean?

Try this: imagine your company without you for the next three to six months.

What impact is there to customer or client relationships? To teams and priorities? To your operations? To your strategy, innovation, or technology? To your revenue, sales, and/or prospects? To key stakeholders, investors, and/or funding?

If you can comfortably say that there’s no significant negative business impact, good for you. You’ve likely been effectively developing talent for sustainability. If, on the other hand, the picture is uncertain or bleak, you’ve just quantified your risk and the potential ROI for reprioritizing your time and elevating the focus on developing those around you.

Remember, these changes don’t have to be made overnight. At the same time, you also can’t assume you have a good 5-10 years before you “plan” to move on to the next level. It’s a process and series of intentional, incremental changes that will get you to an appropriate point of readiness. To get there, you have to start now. Your succession and your business depend on it.