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Moving Forward by Backing Up

Providing “back up” for your own position by building bench strength in your direct reports is a proven way to move your own career forward.  The converse is also true – failing to have adequate back up will prevent you from moving ahead.  This seems like a common-sense, “no-brainer”, right?  Then why doesn’t every executive do this consistently?

Some executives are very competent themselves, but fear internal competition from their subordinates, and therefore hire “B” players who don’t pose a threat.  Some others are work dynamos, perhaps even workaholics, who get everything done themselves, but don’t delegate well.  They don’t hire strong beneath them, because they don’t truly think they need excellent people –they only assign grunt work to others and keep all the important tasks on their own plate.  Still others inherit a so-so team, but aren’t really change agents, so they go with the flow, and keep the old team rather than take risks and invest effort to “topgrade” with “A” players.

True leaders aren’t threatened by strong subordinates; they thrive and derive inspiration by hiring very capable people who help the whole team move to the next level of performance.  Leaders seek people who complement their own skills, filling in where they might have a shortcoming or lack critical knowledge.  One of our favorite things to hear from a client is “I want to hire someone smarter than me.”  It isn’t really about the new hire being smarter, it is about the collective intelligence of the team, and what it takes to have a balance of skills and knowledge.

A good way to ensure that you are building a solid bench is gap analysis – of your own skills, and of your team’s skills.  Imagine the ideal department, functional group or company leadership team.  As if you were designing and staffing it from scratch.  Every hire would be perfect.  What are the capabilities of that team?  Now look at what is missing in your current team.  Are the gaps serious enough to warrant a strategic replacement hire, or can you upgrade the competency of the people who are there now?  Either way, optimizing the team’s capability is the only way to move forward.

Strong leaders know that by positioning one or more successors that can take over their own job, they are also sending a message to senior management that they are ready to move forward too.  Succession planning is a self-fulfilling action.