Grooming Your Successor



Grooming your successor(s). A task that, unfortunately, most people leave until the last minute, or never think about at all. Unless you plan on living forever, (and staying in the same role in the same company for the duration) you will inevitably leave your position. If you’re young, ideally you are moving up the ladder. If you are senior in your company, perhaps you are moving to a company with more upward opportunities. Perhaps you are retiring and need to hire a replacement now, and don’t know where to begin.


If you are working your way up the ladder, it is the greatest way to show maturity and leadership capability.


Even at an entry-level job, there is no better signifier of confidence and capability of growth than someone who has spent time actively developing someone to replace you in your role. It shows your competence with your entire job description if you are able to teach it to someone else. It shows care for the company you work for, in that they have one (or possibly many) options in case of promotion or role absence. It can also produce a strong ally for you in the future, should someone you have mentored to success continue to rise. And, should you be leaving your position to pursue an opportunity with another company, there is no better way to ensure an open door in the event that you want or need to go back to your old job.


If you are a business owner, or high-level exec, it is important to have one (or many) employees, at all levels, who are ready to take the next step up. The more you have, the more efficiently your company will run. The more empowered and confident your staff will be. And, in the event of an emergency in your life, the safer your company will be with educated, trained staff able to fill in.


If you are the owner and/or running the business, it can be a painful proposition to think about. How do you know you are leaving your company in the right hands? Maybe you don’t want to turn over the decisions for your company to anyone else. Maybe you don’t want to think about retiring, or perhaps even becoming unfit to hold the position.


Here are 9 steps toward getting the next in line ready for the job:



  • Create a job description.


Start with the textbook (or handbook) definition of your duties. Pull a copy of one from HR, if you have and HR department, or find one online that matches, if your company is small enough to not have that sort of documentation. Make sure it outlines the hard duties exactly, as you would put in a job posting. But then, grab a pen and make notes on it about the soft skills you need not just to do the job, but to flourish. Do you need a thick skin to deal with the boss? Do you need  good deal of diplomacy to be the go-between with your Board and your staff? After the soft skills, make a few notes about what the needs of the role may be in the future. Focus not on what you have accomplished, but what can be accomplished down the line that follows the direction the company is taking.



  • Form a committee.


If you have a boss, bring them in. If you are the boss, bring in your VP. Grab a coworker, an assistant, and maybe even a client. Show them the job description. Get feedback on your assessment of the job. Ask for input on eligible recruits from all levels of the organization. Ask for possible connections outside of the company. Once you’ve met with this “committee”, take the job description back to your desk, and pare it back down. Now that you truly understand the core of the role, and the type of candidate you are looking for, cut it down to all but the essentials. Cut out the fluff and be brutal. Otherwise, you’ve built yourself a job description so overwhelming and intimidating, you might deter every possibility of wanting or applying to the position.



  • Make your pick(s)


Using your job description as a screening tool, look at your candidates. Look for potential everywhere. There might be a perfect choice at a lower level, even if they aren’t “next in line”. Don’t chose a clone of yourself. You might feel like you are the best at your job, but will choosing a “mini-me” help your company grow? If you have no end-date goal, consider starting the process with multiple candidates simultaneously. Maybe you should even make it a company goal for your management or peers, to consistently employ this method as a matter of the average business day. If you need to make a hire outside the company, look for recommendations, which often yield better employees than job ads.



  • Keep others informed, but slowly


Be transparent about the process. Take your time and signal it gradually. Communicate what you are doing, and why you are doing it, well ahead of time. You don’t want to create disgruntled staff who feel they were uninformed and would have liked the opportunity. If you have the time, and are training a successor just because it’s a best practice, let other non-selected staff petition you when they hear about it. Train multiple candidates, if you have the bandwidth. Let other interested people who may have felt “next in line” or “passed over” know what you are looking for, and what skills are required, so they can prepare for the next time. If you pick one candidate, let the team know why you picked that person.



  • Document


There are several types of documentation you should employ here. First, write down what information you teach and train as you do it. Keeping track of knowledge can ensure that you don’t leave gaps in it. Just a running notebook or digital document with a few sentences like “went over invoicing basics” will ensure you don’t leave out anything. It can also become a place for notes as you think of new things to impart. Second is mental company knowledge. If you are CEO, there is probably information about the company that is in your mind, and nowhere else. If you are an account manager, you probably have tips and secrets you use with accounts. Maybe you signed all the vendors your company uses, and know the routes and delivery times by heart. If you’re the one signing the inspection slips and warranties, you need to let the next in line know when the fire extinguishers need to be replaced. Or you work the phones and know all the ins and outs of the emotions of your company’s clients, and how to use them to make them happy. If you leave with all of your knowledge in your head, there will be a lot of questions or mistakes that arise when you leave. Don’t just pass this on verbally, if you’ve got something to contribute, write it down! Make it actionable, and it may even become a cornerstone to training practices for the whole company. Last, but certainly not least, if you are pioneering this process, write it down. It can become training material later.



  • Train in small doses


You want to identify gaps in skills and experiences and build a baseline there first. Add them into projects in incremental steps. Give them some responsibility, but only a little at a time. Test readiness with real life scenarios, as they happen, and turn them into a “what would you do now?” exercises. If you do not have a deadline for your position leaving, make sure that you are not overburdening yourself with work, and also the employee. If you are grooming over time, be aware that they also have a full-time job to contend with. And probably for lower pay, as well. Try not to give after-hours homework, instead focusing on tasks and small sit-downs. If this is a new hire for the purpose of replacement, ensure that a foundation of basic training happens concurrently with specific role training.



  • Show “why” more than “how”


You want to train someone to do the job, but the best way to create a dynamic, problem-solving employee is explaining the “why” of the task, problem, or processes, rather than just going through the motions. Why is it important that the end-of-day reports are run? Why do you digitally scan a document and keep the paper copy anyway? That way the candidate will be able to problem-solve and manage creatively on their own, once you are gone.



  • Communicate


Make sure that you keep your boss or peers informed of the progress. Make sure that your candidate understands areas that they are performing well in training, as well as weak areas to work on. Communicate personal or professional expectations of the role clearly throughout the process. Ask a lot of questions. Let them find the files in the computer themselves, with you there to talk them through.



  • Hand over tasks


Start small. Stress the importance of maintaining positive relationships with vendors or clients or customers. Put them in charge of certain tasks that can be delegated slowly. Check in on them frequently to ensure they have the right steps in place. You want to be a safety net while they take over, not to micro-manage the job or the transition, but to build their confidence in their ability to do the job alone. After a time, act as if you are not there. Let them figure out solutions within departments or with HR. Resist the urge to continue to be a safety net if they falter. If they cannot figure it out now, they may never be able to perform the tasks without you there to guide them.



  • Let go


Manage the transition, and then leave. Move on and let them take the reigns. Make yourself available for questions, if you want, but do not check in on them. Feel satisfied, like you are leaving a worthy legacy to your company!