I have always made it a habit to be intentional about teaching my assistants. I am a firm believer that part of my responsibility as a leader is to develop those who will be leading next. This requires me to spend time showing, teaching, and explaining, helping them to understand what I do and why I do it. When I do this, they become better leaders and become prepared to do what I do. If they take this experience and move on to another organization, then I have indirectly had an influence that is greater than my own organization. But sometimes, this has prepared them to step up into a greater leadership role within our own organization, especially when my path has moved me on to someplace else.
You see, although it is not a direct correlation, one of the marks of effective leadership is often seen in what happens after that leader is gone, in whether or not the organization continues to move forward. It’s not a direct correlation because people still have choices in the process, and because old habits can easily return, and so it may not necessarily be a direct reflection on the leader if direction changes after his or her departure. However, you can have a greater certainty of lasting impact if you do one thing – grow your replacements.
What typically happens when a leader leaves, regardless of the reason, as that a search committee, board of directors, president, owner, or some other designated party undertakes a search for the replacement. A job description is prepared or revised, the position is posted, and résumés are examined. After a lengthy (and hopefully thorough) process, a candidate is chosen and an offer is given. When the newly chosen leader arrives, there will be a time of transition while he or she learns the culture and the organization, then the new leader’s vision begins to be put in place. If he (or she) is a good leader, he will continue to move the organization forward in positive ways. But if the committee made a poor choice, or if the leader doesn’t connect with the followers, the organization could be in for a rough road.
But there can be a greater chance of continued positive direction if you already have a certainty about the next leader’s capability, if he has been intentionally developed under the guidance of the previous leader. If this can happen, then the future leader will have already had the opportunity to grow, learn, emulate, and gain experience. In this way, he becomes a known entity, prepared to step in and take over with much less of a transition. And in order to successfully grow your replacement, there are three things that you need to do.
1. The first thing you have to do is to “let them see.” By this, I mean that you need to give plenty of opportunity for your potential replacements to see your example. Of course, this also implies proximity – they need to be able to spend time in your presence, so that they can observe you in action from close range, and so that they can ask questions. This also provides you with the platform to discuss, teach, and explain, helping them to understand your reasoning, motives, and methods. It becomes a focused form of mentoring, with individualized training and development. Keep in mind, though, that the point is not to create a duplicate of yourself, but rather, to give them the opportunity to learn from your example and to give you the opportunity to shape their leadership.
2. The second thing you have to do is to “let them try.” This means that they need to do more than just observe; they need to roll up their sleeves and participate. This happens when you provide them with opportunities to gain experience by leading a project, initiating a program, managing a task, or taking other responsibilities. When you allow this to take place, you can then provide feedback and use those experiences as more opportunities to learn. You can assess and critique their performance, but they also get to learn from their own performance, both their successes and their failures (which leads to the third tool that you get to use).
3. The third thing you have to do is to “let them fail.” By letting them see your example, they learn from your experience, but by letting them try and letting them fail, they learn from their own experience. It is likely that you have already learned the value of lessons and growth that emerge from failures, mistakes, and difficulties, and the same process of growth is important for your replacements. But in order for them to learn from their mistakes, it first needs to be safe for them to fail. And you are the one who makes it safe it fail. Provide an environment that allows them learn from the mistakes they make, so that they can change and grow. And once again, take these opportunities to teach, intentionally developing their leadership out of those experiences.
Ultimately, part of your effectiveness as a leader is seen in how you develop others. Therefore, in your organization, you need to purposefully identify those who could become your future replacement and do these things – let them see, let them try, and let them fail – in order to develop their leadership. It’s entirely possible that, after you have invested in them, they move on to leadership opportunities elsewhere, but it is also possible that you are preparing your own replacement, someone who understands the organization and has been prepared to lead it well. In either case, your leadership will have had a longer lasting and further reaching impact, and you will have a greater certainty of the long-term health of your organization. Very simply, you will be more effective if you grow your own replacements.