James founded a startup in the tech industry over 15 years ago. Like all of the good ideas he’d ever conceived, this one happened around the kitchen table. He’d been wrestling with how to improve communications and delivery coordination in a logistics business and had finally stumbled on the answer…his company became the solution.
As the years progressed, James grew the company into a highly successful firm with over 3,000 employees. He knew virtually all of them, keeping close ties with those employees who had been there since the beginning. They still remembered the early struggles and mistakes, which made celebrating every triumph with them so much sweeter.
In the process of building the company, James had become a legend, much admired and respected by the staff and an emblem of the culture of the organization; in fact, he is the standard bearer for it. James is the kind of leader who walks the halls and talks to the employees. He asks what they’re working on and seeks to understand their challenges. His conversation is filled with anecdotes and stories that reinforce what a great company they are all a part of. He’s developed nearly a cult-like following among his employees.
It’s not unusual during meetings to hear people ask, “What would James think?” Almost every decision made is put through that filter. In short, James has built a successful organization, but one in which others are unwilling or unable to relinquish their dependency on him.
James has been committed to developing others and is especially devoted to long-tenured employees who have been loyal to the company. Yet, the time he has to accomplish finding successors for senior roles is now an issue. The company continues to expand rapidly, so much so that the skills and leadership characteristics required for success in the early years have shifted dramatically. This is no longer a fledgling startup; it is now an industry player facing multi-billion-dollar competitors.
Despite his desire to grow talent from within, and his belief in his own ability to do so, James has failed to develop successors for key leadership positions, which is a critical factor in executing the company’s strategy for ongoing success. After stabbing away at the problem for several years, James is realizing that the individuals who helped start the company do not have the skills or mindset necessary for taking the organization to the next level in its evolution.
Phil Schoonover, the former CEO of the now-defunct Circuit City, faced a similar dilemma in the mid-2000s. The chain of big-box stores was under pressure to cut costs and grow rapidly but was staffed at the leadership level with talented individuals whose capabilities could not outpace the rate of change.
When I interviewed Phil during this time period, he was very candid about the lessons he’d learned about developing leaders quickly enough to meet the challenges required of the organization.
“It’s a fair criticism to say that in some instances I’ve given people in mission-critical positions too much time," he said. "I’ve learned that it is important to put shorter time frames on people stepping up [to the new expectations] and to define better milestones. I’ve also learned that I have to be humble enough to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this,' if I’m struggling with a part of the transformation and go out and hire those who do.”
If you want to navigate talent decisions at the senior leadership level in a timely way, here are eight important questions worth considering:
- Does the individual that you are investing in have the character that you want to see in a future leader of the company?
- Does the individual have a true desire to lead at the highest level, even when the path ahead will be difficult and uncharted?
- Is this a person with the technical ability to perform the job at a world class standard?
- Has the background and experience of this individual prepared him or her for the challenges of this leadership role, or will they require extensive time to come up to speed?
- Has the individual demonstrated a high capacity for learning?
- Does their capacity for learning exceed the time you have for knowledge building?
- Does this individual demonstrate the emotional fortitude and balance to lead others with grace?
- Ultimately, is this person a fit for the organization who can be counted on to be an evangelist for the culture that underpins the company’s success?
Through his challenging experience with Circuit City, Phil also learned that it sometimes becomes necessary to help individuals leave the organization.
“Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work,” he said. “When you find that out, you have to deal with it right away because staying too long with a bad decision can be catastrophic.”
Written by: Alaina Love, CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill), for Smart Brief.