Strategic planning can bring out the best or worst in a firm, and sometimes in its leaders. One of the most widespread, damaging, and avoidable patterns I see is a leadership gap between the current CEO (or president or managing partner) and the next level. The symptoms of this gap can be seen from both sides:
From the top position, it appears that nobody else could possibly do your job, much less a (much) younger principal or principal-wannabe. After all, from your perspective, you’ve never seen anyone display even a hint of the leadership you put into action every day.
From the next level looking up, it looks as if the CEO possessively hordes the management of the firm and never gives anyone a chance to show what they can do.
If this is happening in your firm and you allow it to continue, eventually the firm will reach a crisis in which nobody will be prepared to provide essential leadership continuity. But not all firms fall prey to this dysfunction – some truly have their act together. They anticipate and plan for leadership continuity years in advance and dig into their organization to cultivate their future leaders.
I’d like to offer some thoughts about developing someone who can take what you’ve built to a new level.
Free trial. Any candidate for the top spot is likely already managing something: a group or an office. Give them more – a bigger group, a region of offices – and see how they handle the load.
Feedback. Without frequent, direct, and constructive criticism, no one can learn effectively. You owe it to yourself, the candidates, and to your firm to give real time feedback in the form of praise and/or corrective advice.
Training. Very few of us are taught leadership in school and “OTJ” training can be rife with bad examples. Invest in your firm’s future by providing candidates directed leadership development. One low-cost idea is to find great leadership books and conduct an ongoing book discussion group.
Be a role model. Many eyes are always trained on the leader; it comes with the territory. While you’re identifying and grooming your successors, be extra vigilant about the example you set every day.
Initially a group, ultimately one. The buck stops at the top and single clear leadership is most often the recipe for success. Begin with a group of candidates and recognize that ultimately you’ll have to make a decision. But don’t chicken out and acquiesce to management by committee – that’s usually ineffective, and especially so when the group is a product of your own indecision.