How to Leave the Dance Floor | Two Thoughts on Succession.

At the Pierre Trudeau international airport in Montreal, Canada, with two leaders, William and Emmanuel, who succeeded me as CEOs of The HuD Group in Ghana and Canada respectively. We had held a strategy meeting just before the COVID-19 pandemic seriously hit the Canada and the U.S..

 

In my last blog we discussed when to leave the dance floor as an executive leader. Today, let’s talk about how to leave the dance floor. I agree with those who prefer ‘succession management’ to the term ‘succession planning’ because planning, come to think of it, really is only a third of the management cycle which comprises planning, implementation and evaluation.

I have several succession management experiences in my leadership career spanning over two decades. These have been in multiple C-level roles and contexts, even in different countries and continents.

 

SUCCESSION SUCCESS STORIES

After pioneering The HuD Group in Ghana in 2003 and leading it for five years, I successfully passed it on to the next national CEO and left for Cote d’Ivoire to pioneer the same work of holistic leadership development there while serving with the United Nations peacekeeping operation. The Cote d’Ivoire transition, when it was time to leave after a year, was one of the trickiest.  The very week I was to leave, the one person who had hitherto faithfully served alongside me and was the ‘heir apparent’ suddenly and strangely broke my trust in a significant way. The ‘next best’ I eventually handed over to, ended up being truly the best. Timothée led the organization for a decade and has now also successfully passed the baton to an amazing lady, Ann. Timothée is now the CEO of Francophone Africa for the same organization. We have been working together for over a dozen years. We do not only have a mentoring relationship but are really friends, having spent great times together in several African countries as well as in the U.S. and Indonesia. I have done the same kind of succession management in Canada, handing over The HuD Group I pioneered there in 2010 to a very capable young man who at the time was working for Shell in the oil sands of Alberta.

In a different scenario, although I was initially hired to be interim pastor of the English congregation of a Chinese church in Montreal, when it was time to get serious about handing over to a successor after about three years, several people did not want us to go that route. They liked me and had gotten comfortable with the progress we were making in several areas but I knew it was the right thing to do. As a leader, I had figured out that the church needed to find someone who could give their full attention to the work and not my part-time investment, albeit fairly substantial. That too was an interesting succession management process as it involved interviewing candidates from Canada, the US, Taiwan and the Philippines. It’s been about five years since we eventually hired a young trilingual Chinese-Canadian, Rev. Joseph Cherng, and the church has been thriving since he took over over from me. Again, he consults me from time to time and we are good friends, even visiting our home to share fellowship together with our spouses.

As I shared in the previous blog, I have just made my way off the dance floor after an eight-year tenure as president of ISMCanada and still in the midst of succession management even as I write this blog. I like the fact that in their statement to the organization, the board mentioned that I gave them a whole year’s notice of my stepping aside. That is how to do it–give ample time (unless, of course, it is an emergency). A recent meeting at ISMCanada had two former presidents (myself and Paul Workentine, who handed over to me in 2013) and the new president of ISMCanada (Jakob Koch) all in the same Zoom breakout room (picture below). All three of us still have roles in the organization concurrently. A blessed rarity!

The said Zoom meeting at ISMCanada which had three successive presidents present.

 

Apart from leaving the dance floor when people are still enjoying your dance, there are two other mindsets that have helped me succeed with regards to succession management in the several leadership transitions in my leadership career in multiple roles and contexts First, “leadership success is measured by succession” and then, “always be closing.”

 

MINDSET #1: LEADERSHIP SUCCESS IS MEASURED BY SUCCESSION

One of the things that has helped me to be largely successful in all the above stories, even amidst challenges, has been a leadership jewel I picked from John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership about 20 years ago. According to John’s Law of Legacy, a leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. So unlike other leaders, and I’ve seen many such in Africa, who even want their successor to fail so that they look good, I have always viewed by success as a leader by how well my successor does. You don’t want your successor to look bad just so that you look good. That is bad leadership.

In all the above successful succession stories, my pride is in the fact that these subsequent leaders are doing well, even better than I did in me era. If really leadership is about the people we serve and the noble purpose we share, then any true leader would want to measure their success by a successful succession!

 

MINDSET #2: ALWAYS BE CLOSING

When I was a financial consultant with Investors Group Canada, I had a fascinating Italian gentleman called Carlo in charge of my unit. He was quite the mentor figure, doing some rounds with me and even taking me to his home on the east end of Montreal once. Carlo was a straight-shooter and his large clientele was evidence that he was doing something right.  He is the guy who first taught me to ‘motivate and disturb’ in the sales process. But the most important thing he taught me about sales, I find applies to succession management as well. He called it ABC–Always Be Closing. That must’ve been his short version of Stephen Covey’s second habit of successful people: begin with the end in mind.

To Carlo, what was the point of all the prospecting, phone calling, presentation preparation, sales conversations etc. if it all these activities in the sales process don’t end up in a sale? But in order to close the sale in the end, one has to have that mindset and talk and behave as a closer right from the beginning of the conversation–even before the beginning–and throughout the conversation. ABC–Always Be Closing.

When it comes to succession management, I feel the same way. Always Be Closing. Right from taking a position or role, one needs to begin with the end in mind and start succession management. Always Be Closing. What if the day after you become VP or CEO you’re hit by a bus? What happens to your organization? Even barring any such tragedy, the reality is, every leader, no matter how good and gifted, will have to leave one day. No one and nothing lasts forever. From the very day I took on the CEO role at ISMCanada, I identified a possible successor and hinted him. Always be closing.

 

CONCLUSION

So succession management should be as basic a mindset and requirement as ABC for every would-be-successful leader. Beginning with the end in mind, Always Be Closing. And if one truly believes their leadership success is measured by successful succession, it will make all the difference in how they leave the dance floor. Leadership success is good, but significance because succession was successful, is even better!

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