Stretch Assignments in Succession Planning

Many business leaders are frustrated in fulfilling their succession plans. They perceive a lack of energy and voracity demonstrated by their designated successors. This perceived lack of motivation probably isn’t so much a demonstration of disinterest, but rather an illustration of limited developmental opportunities. How can we bridge this gap? The best way to develop successors is with stretch assignments. Learning through struggle and confidence building exercises will encourage the development of key skills and capabilities required to demonstrate their leadership readiness. By following the suggestions listed below, leaders can effectively stretch, develop and prepare their team to continue the leader’s’ legacy with confidence.

Step 1: Identifying shortcomings:

There are two kinds of shortcomings you need to assess: 1) Individual skills gaps, and 2) organizational requirements. Development opportunities will illustrate a mix of organizational requirements (the company needs ‘X’ project to be done), and individual requirements (the individual needs to build/develop/practice ‘X’ skills required by this task to personally achieve new levels of performance.) Optimal organizational development opportunities might include shorter-term, high intensity projects that spawn into long-term impacts. Additionally, these tasks should allow for the individual to exercise authoritative/collaborative decision-making, and perform strategic decision making skills while working visibly with other key players.

Step 2: Provide tools, resources and basic instructions:

Discuss the stretch assignment with your team/employee. Be sure to illuminate the opportunity to “see what you’re made of” to both internal leadership and external customers. Describe the impact of the end product – what is your vision for accomplishing this task? Then, provide the tools, resources and basic requirements to the individual/team to get things done.

Step 3: Empower through delegated authority and accountability:

When providing a “stretch assignment”, it’s critically important that leaders enable the individuals to make their own decisions/assessments. As they are held accountable for their actions, the struggle and strife will help long-term learning occur.

Step 4: Step Back:

Although your leadership engagement throughout the process will be available, it should only be available from a mentor perspective – when requested, and even then – in a coaching, not consulting, capacity. When asked for help, leaders can provide strategic considerations, understanding consequences, and seeing second and third degree influences of actions while reaffirming the project vision. Ultimately, the goal throughout this assignment is autonomy – empowering people to step-up, take action, and figure things out by themselves. This may be challenging for highly involved managers, but the autonomy, authority, accountability and empowerment throughout this process will enable employees to truly demonstrate and stretch their skill sets while fulfilling an organizational need in the process.

Step 5: Celebrate the struggle, success and achievement:

Following completion of key project milestones or the final assignment deliverables, positive feedback on successes is critical. During challenging assignments, praise the perseverance and determination to overcome. Celebrate the successes to reinforce those skills that were demonstrated through the endeavor. Share this achievement with others to encourage additional positive reinforcement. This positive reinforcement solidifies the lessons learned through struggle, and further builds confidence that will be applied to follow-on projects.

Although this may sound like all optimism and theory, the actual stretch assignment will likely be a substantial struggle – making or breaking the individual. Failure is most certainly an option – but through careful guidance, encouragement and mentorship together you can create something truly great while building skills and confidence in the process. Why take the risk of failure? Because struggle sparks learning & confidence, further building candidates to fill the role and legacy you left behind. After all, if it was easy, anyone could do it. Is that the legacy you want to leave?

Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC. You may also be interested in the following articles: Increase Your Effectiveness As A Leader With Perception Science; How To Create Success From Failure; How To Get Your People To Change Today; Cure For The CEO Disease

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