Allstate Insurance has developed a brilliant marketing campaign. They have personified mayhem. He wears a suit and has a dry sense of humor. He’s relatable. We all have dropped our cell phone in the car and, against better judgment, took our eyes off the road to find it. Accidents happen. It’s the reason we pay premiums for insurance. Something goes wrong and we know who to call, and no, it’s not Ghostbusters. Insurance companies have invested in relatable marketing campaigns and they work. Insurance makes us feel good because we have a plan.
We make all sorts of plans for life. We create birth plans, funeral plans, medical emergency plans, college plans, weekend plans, and life plans. We invest time and energy into creating plans to guide us during times of chaos and uncertainty. We want to make our lives easier. We make plans to guard against the inevitable.
However, despite all our efforts, we fall short when it comes to succession planning. We put together a boiler plate document that indicates that if anyone in leadership is unable, unwilling, or loses a limb that prevents them from continuing to serve in their position, we will look for another suitable candidate. The end.
Unfortunately, this preventable lapse in planning often causes significant turmoil when mayhem comes walking through the door. We plan for “what ifs” throughout every other aspect in our life, but we fail to demonstrate the same concern for the people we work with whether in business or higher education institutions. We pass the buck.
Effective succession planning is more than just identifying a process carried out by a board of individuals who are unfamiliar with the day-to-day needs of an institution. Succession planning is demonstrating care and concern for people. It provides that warm and fuzzy feeling we get from watching insurance commercials. It is leadership’s way of saying, we care enough to communicate a transparent plan should the inevitable occur. It is not enough to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing bad will ever happen. It will happen and institutions need a plan.
There are three critical mistakes institutions make when succession planning:
- You’re in Good Hands: We think the job is done when we write a brief plan on paper that says, “If the [insert your favorite leadership role] is no longer able or unwilling to perform her/his duties, the Board of Directors will commence a search to fill the vacant position. During the search period, the [insert your favorite secondary leadership role] will fulfill the position.” Sure, that sounds good. It probably even helps you sleep at night, but what happens when the search takes longer than anticipated or the “runner up” decides not to fulfill the interim position?
Mistake: “Sure, we have a succession plan. It’s here on this piece of paper. No, it hasn’t been reviewed since we first wrote it down in 1999.”
- Like a Good Neighbor: Succession plans are excellent opportunities for institutions to assume. Plans often contain language like “everyone is cross-trained among departments”. We treat these catch phrases like magical words. We create a false sense of security because a piece of paper says that everyone is cross-trained. However, in reality, while Bob knows how to operate the copier (it’s the big green button, right?), the filing process may be completely foreign to him. Institutions need to implement a succession plan that not only accounts for top leadership, but for inevitable changes throughout the comprehensive leadership structure.
Mistake: “Our institution has a business continuity plan. Betty here explained her job to John four years ago. I’m sure he can step in and it will be just like Betty never left.”
- You Could Have Saved Hundreds on Car Insurance: Failing to effectively plan causes uncertainty and stress. Sure there are individuals within the institution who can step up in the short term and take on additional responsibilities without additional compensation. They are committed and dedicated, but even the most loyal employee can get burned out.
Mistake: “We can take our time looking for someone who would be perfect for this role. Everyone at the institution will pick up the slack for as long as needed. It might even save us a little money”.
While this may all sound absurd, it occurs across institutions everywhere. We plan for ourselves and our families, but stop short with the people we serve and those who bring our vision to life. Succession planning is about demonstrating how much we care about people. It requires transparency and communication. Succession planning creates stability and promotes sustainability. Students deserve an institution that pays attention to the details so their academic goals do not get caught in the wake of unanticipated institutional upheaval. An effective succession plan acts like the good neighbor we call when mayhem hits.
How does your institution plan for the inevitable?