Are You Creating A Leadership Vacuum?

Yvette McDonald - 29 July 2021

The Board looked at each other with dismay as they realised they needed to recruit externally to replace the retiring CEO. After 10 years in the role the CEO had done an outstanding job in establishing and growing the ministry. However, the one gap he left was not raising up his own replacement to take the ministry into its next era. The Board now faced the risk of bringing in someone to lead the ministry who was unknown and untested. The CEO recruitment task they were about to undertake could put the whole of the ministry at stake.

Sometimes there are great reasons to recruit externally for key leadership roles. A fresh set of eyes can bring in new perspectives, reset culture and realign strategy to a changing context. Recruiting externally can bring in a capability set that is not currently in the organisation. However, even a great recruitment process is not full proof in identifying the perfect candidate.

Recently, a not-for-profit organisation I consult to hire an experienced senior leader after a vacancy arose in their leadership team. She came highly recommended from stakeholders who knew the organisation well. Despite her confident answers during the interview and glowing references, not long after she started, her poor team leadership, inability to manage complexity and low stress tolerance become apparent to internal and external stakeholders. Within 6 months of hire, the organisation was negotiating a complicated exit with her. Her team was left feeling wounded, upset and anxious. Some of her highly capable team even left the organisation fed up. The leadership team were left with a major capability gap and external stakeholders were questioning the credibility of the organisation.

When I ask senior leaders about their succession plans most mumble something about having insufficient hours in the day, crises to manage, email overload, etc. The urgent tasks always scream more loudly than future challenges. So, it is not surprising that many leaders are not investing the time, resources and energy needed into raising up tomorrow’s leaders.

As a result, most recruitment we do is reactive as we have not invested the time in developing a leadership pipeline. But imagine the difference it would make if you were discipling potential leaders today. The cost of not succession planning results in organisations taking unnecessary risks by promoting leaders that are not ready when a role becomes vacant. Or worse still, they recruit externally, bringing someone into the organisation whose values may not be aligned, and whose skills are untested.

1. It starts with recruitment

A mentor of mine says she only recruits people with “long legs”. What she means is if she could see that the candidate had the potential to be promoted in the future she would hire them. What she was assessing was their character, ability to manage ambiguity and how they problem solve. If she could not imagine them growing into larger roles with more responsibility in the future, then they were not likely to get hired. If we want people to stay in our organisations for many years, we need to recruit people who will have room to grow in their current role and within the organisation.

2. When identifying future leaders don’t confuse performance for potential

A mistake I often see leaders make is promoting strong technical experts over people with potential. Don’t get me wrong performance is really important! A great performer is someone who can always be trusted, role models the organisation’s values and always delivers to a high standard.

Ready, Conger and Hill (2010) define potential as being able to deliver strong results credibly, master new types of expertise and see the impact of their behaviour. At the heart of the employee with potential is the ability to learn quickly, take appropriate risks and sense their environment. Learning quickly involves true humility and sometimes repentance. So, when seeking future leaders to mentor look for people who are taking responsibility for what they deliver and how they develop both their skills and their character.

3. Grow a pipeline of leaders

Charan, Drotter and Noel (2011) have mapped the growth challenges that leaders go through when they move through different levels of responsibility in organisations. The early stages of development include learning to manage other employees, then to managing managers and finally through to managing an entire organisation. At each stage there are different skills and capabilities needed.

When discipling leaders, it is really important to match their development to the capability and character needed in their current role or likely next role. Some organisations also map the skills needed for each level of leadership or each role.

When thinking about how to develop a future leader, don’t just think about a course someone can go on or a book they can read. Whilst this may prepare someone mentally for more responsibility, it is not growing their skills or character. Instead, consider how they can learn on the job as it is one of the most effective ways to gain new skills and train character. So, consider giving someone a project or assignment that will help them develop in some of areas they need.

4. Never be too busy to coach, mentor or give feedback

Finally support, coach, disciple, mentor and give feedback to people in your leadership pipeline. Timely and loving feedback will accelerate their development and grow self-awareness. Sometimes, we can never predict when a leadership role will become vacant, so have a pool of potential leaders ready to step up to serve as leaders to avoid a leadership crisis.

About the author:

Yvette McDonald is a pragmatic senior Human Resources professional with over 20 years’ experience. She is passionate about raising up Christian leaders.

Yvette has deep experience in aligning culture with strategy, organisational design, leadership development, employee engagement and training design. Yvette held an executive Human Resources role with Ferrero Australia, and national roles with Coca-Cola Amatil and Thorn Australia (Radio Rentals). She is currently the Director of Elixan Consulting and has developed the Christian Leadership Framework.

Yvette has an MBA, Masters of Commerce and Bachelor of Economics. She is also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors (GAICD).