Replacing Mr. Wonderful

We’ve all seen him and felt his presence. He is the magnanimous figure at the head of the corporate table and he is larger than life. He’s brilliant, charismatic and successful. He is also humble, warm and caring.

His career began just like all of ours did. He started at the bottom; but for him, it was different. People noticed his charm, his brilliancy and his quick wit and he moved quickly through the ranks. Promotion after promotion moved him up the corporate ladder and soon he was leading the charge. He’s taken the company into new markets, championed new products and grown the company to new heights.

And now the time has come. Mr. Wonderful has announced that he seeks to retire and take some much deserved time off with his beautiful family. And all anyone can think is, “what the hell are we going to do now?”

This one is a tough one. I remember a friend of mine telling me that in life about 85% of people live life day by day, paycheck by paycheck, and get along fine. The other 15% go for the gold and put in the time and effort to make life better. Within that 15% are 5%ers – those people who, no matter what the challenge; put forth the effort, put in the hours and have the passion to win. Mr. Wonderful is a 5%er.

So as I see this, two problems exist here. One is the sadness and fears that so many will feel when this person rides off into the sunset. The other and much larger challenge is attempting to replace them.

Having been in the people business for as long as we have been, we have watched this scenario play out many times. It’s hard because there are several realities that we all need to come to terms with.

Finding the same type of person is not only hard, it’s virtually impossible if you wait until they retire.

The likelihood of their replacement being multiple people, split up into different job functions, is almost a given.

If you do hire one person, it is extremely hard for the successor to measure up and usually the first hire doesn’t last.

So, some quick stats. In the next three-five years, the largest number of baby boomers will hit retirement age within this generation. Therefore what has been a “looming” talent shortage will become noticeable and significant. Out of the 50 states in the union, Wisconsin has the largest number of people who meet this demographic.

The message here is, it is time to plan. This challenge, if planned for correctly and communicated well, can be a smooth transition for everyone involved. Here are my top four suggestions to start doing today:

Leadership mentorship programs – every company should be looking at succession planning as not just a way to transition people into the sunset, but an excellent opportunity to coach and train new leaders. Analyze the competencies, characteristics, and values etc. that make the person successful in that role. Evaluate for the “heart” piece (values, soft skills) and design a program to transition the leadership piece.

When we put together succession plans, it is critical to understand exactly what the person’s role looks like – hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly. Some key functions may only happen once a year, which is why true Succession planning should be done a minimum of three years before someone’s retirement.

If family is involved, do not assume the son or daughter is ready for the top spot shortly after joining the company! We’ve witnessed second or third generations significantly under prepared for the task that lay ahead of them and many not only fail, but the company does as well. To earn respect and ensure success, the family member needs time to be involved in all aspects of the organization from sales, operations, finance etc. to get a true picture of what drives the organization. Family can be a great option for replacing Mr. Wonderful if done well.

Break the current role into smaller pieces. One person is hired for their leadership, charisma; ability to create and share a vision, communication, passion etc. and another is hired to for their ability to put the vision in motion. Together the parts add up to a significant whole.

In conclusion I would say this. Be thankful to have been exposed to Mr. Wonderful. We all will cherish the time with such a dynamic leader. Embrace change, as we know it is inevitable and do everything possible to create a strong game plan around succession and enjoy the journey. Part of what makes life interesting is the dynamics of people, our most valuable resource.

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