Letting go is hard – especially if it’s something you built or even created. But you cannot hope to onboard someone into your old role successfully unless you’re prepared to offboard yourself. Help your successor learn the knowledge, practice the skills, get the hard-won experience, and build the relationships and confidence they need to succeed. Then, get out of the way.

The first three are from a modified Gallup strengths model that suggests strengths are a combination of innate talent, learned knowledge, practiced skill, hard-won experience, and apprenticed craft-level artistic caring and sensibilities.

The model plays out in succession planning and career development with long-term efforts to build knowledge, skills, experience, and, where appropriate, craft.

On a more short-term basis, this about helping your successor learn the more specific knowledge required to do your specific job in your specific organization. It’s about helping them practice using the relevant job-specific and organization-specific tools and processes. And it’s about helping them experience the job and make mistakes with a safety net underneath them so those mistakes are inconsequential and reversible.

A million years ago, I took a step-by-step approach to transition my main accounts at Lever Brothers to the salespeople working for me. Each step was made up of a month of weekly meetings so the whole program took six months.

  1. They came with me on account calls and just observed. (Learning)
  2. They came with me and observed, and then got to physically place the orders. (Learning and practice)
  3. The prepared the presentations, gave them to me to give to the accounts, and just observed. (Practice and learning)
  4. They prepared the presentations, shared them with me in advance, got my coaching and then made the presentations themselves. But I answered all the questions. (Practice, learning and experience)
  5. They prepared the presentations, shared them with me in advance, role played the questions and answers with me, made the presentations and answered questions themselves with me present. (Practice, learning and experience)
  6. They prepared the presentations, shared them with me in advance, role played the questions and answers with me, and then made the presentations and answered the questions themselves with me sitting outside the meeting room so they could immediately debrief with me after the meetings. (Practice, learning and experience)

Then they were ready. They had the required general and tactical strengths. They had built relationships. And, perhaps most important, they were confident.

The next month, I took a one-week vacation and then attended a one-week sales leadership conference. By the end of those two weeks, the group was tracking to be 150% of quota for the month. They were inspired, enabled, and empowered.

Implications for you

Obviously, the Lever Brothers example won’t work for the vast majority of you. It’s too narrowly focused and too tactical. But you can draw some implications.

  1. Make it about their success, not your legacy. You’re not setting your successors up to be you. They have to take what you and your team have done to new levels – their way, not yours.
  2. Have a teaching/learning approach. Think through how you’re going to help your successors learn, practice, and experience the important parts of the role. You don’t have to teach them yourself. You don’t have to supervise their practice. You don’t have to hold the net to catch them when they fail early on – which they will. But somebody does.
  3. Prepare everyone. It’s not just about preparing those taking over from you. It’s about preparing your followers to accept new leaders and preparing peers to accept new peers. Everyone will have the same question: “What does this mean for me?” You have to help them believe this will be good for them.
  4. Get the timing and pacing right. Hand over responsibilities too soon and your successors won’t be ready. Hand them over too late and your successors won’t engage. Get the timing right for handing over different responsibilities to different people.
  5. Get out of the way and stay out of the way. Your successors are not going to do things the way you did. They will make mistakes you would not have made. You have to let them do that so they can learn and grow and do things that work better than what you would have done.

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