Mentoring Your Replacement
By Michael Card
Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.
Although we may not like to admit it, none of us will stay in our job forever. Our nature causes us to think of ourselves as one of a kind and matchless. Perhaps we believe that it would take several people to replace us.
However, these thoughts deviate from reality. Someone can follow in our footsteps. We may stand out in our position and feel that only we can do certain things. But, all of us must prepare the next generation to take our place.
Fortunately, I have a supervisor who values my capabilities and contributions. Yet, he gave me perspective one day by saying, “We all excel at what we do, make a difference, and consider ourselves irreplaceable. Actually, we resemble a hand in a barrel of water. You pull it out, and the water rushes in to fill the space. Removing the hand may temporarily cause ripples and a lower water level, but the void will and must become filled.”
As a leader, you hold responsibility for mentoring your people and training your successor. Performing this duty well, coupled with your own successes, will constitute a lasting legacy.
Major Card serves with the Okaloosa County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office.
Accept Your Future
You know your job—the required effort, demands, and sacrifices—better than others who think they understand your role. Motivating your personnel has pushed them to accomplish more than they thought possible. How could anyone take your place and perform as effectively as you have?
After moving into your position, you made the workplace better. You know what needs done, prioritize those tasks and processes, and execute them efficiently. And, you understand the demands faced by your personnel, including their workload and other duties required for them to enhance their skill sets. As a leader, you have kept them motivated and promoted a positive work environment. However, at some point, your career will come to an end.
The cold, hard reality of being a leader is that we all have either a physical or organizational shelf life. This realization, no matter how difficult or painful to grasp, need not be a fatalistic view of your future, but instead the inspiration…to find the next-generation leader, capable and prepared to springboard to organizational success from your mentorship and guiding hand.2
Most everyone has a natural fear of giving up control of what they worked so hard to establish. We entered into our job and worked diligently to make things more efficient, effective, and streamlined. It feels uncomfortable to turn that over to someone else. But, whether due to retirement or promotion, eventually we will leave.
You must mentor subordinates to take your position and fill your shoes so they can continue and perhaps improve your work. They must have the freedom to develop their own personal style of effective leadership, not simply to copy you. Your method may contradict theirs, and they may find it difficult to emulate. Additionally, maintaining the status quo can hamper change or continued enhancements.
“As a leader, you hold responsibility for mentoring your people and training your successor.”
How Did You Feel?
Sometimes, promotion is a double-edged sword. The pluses are obvious—the pay, title, and ability to have a larger impact on agency dynamics. However, individuals sometimes enter a new job ill prepared and then figure it out as they go along. This often occurs during restructuring. They may have no idea how to perform some of their additional responsibilities.
Have you ever held a position where you felt overwhelmed every day? Maybe you became inundated with multiple streams of information and responsibilities you never encountered before. You did not ask for help because you feared that others might conclude that they selected the wrong person and that you cannot handle the position. If you experienced such a situation and remember how it felt, is that what you want your successor to experience?
Consider Your Replacement
What should this new leader be like? If you have input and the opportunity to select your replacement, you need to look at how the individual interacts with others. Will this person build on your accomplishments and efforts and work toward organizational goals?
Do not pursue the unattainable goal of finding another you. Although replaceable, you are unique. You have your own method and ability to lead in your style. If you already have someone in mind, you already recognize the individual’s potential. Develop it and help that person turn weaknesses into strengths. Offer a fair evaluation and assist in finding the employee’s own approach. This likely will enhance your achievements; although your successor may have a different method, it could prove better than yours.
Many people fear replacement by a younger, smarter, faster person. Due to these concerns, they may hold onto information because knowledge often equates to power. However, such an attempt at making oneself invaluable is a grave disservice to the organization and its personnel.
You best can develop future leaders by empowering them. Give those individuals the opportunity to make decisions and work for their success. Allow them to make mistakes to learn from. Use those errors—as long as they are not significant—as teaching tools and let them own their missteps and achievements. Explain to them how you have addressed similar problems and what you would do to correct their errors.
These experiences make excellent opportunities to expand into other conversations about daily activities, responsibilities, and critical tasks. Sharing how you handle routine operations and duties passes on institutional knowledge that otherwise could become lost in your absence.
Recognize Employees’ Abilities
Most likely, you have worked with your subordinates and coworkers long enough to identify their strengths, skill sets, and areas for improvement. You hold the responsibility for providing them input and feedback so they, in turn, can enhance the success of the organization and the personnel they will mentor and develop.
Telling people how to do something is not as effective as allowing them to learn on their own. Empower your personnel to make decisions. Let them make mistakes, but not ones that would harm the organization or their career. That would constitute sabotage, not successful leadership. People learn from their errors and develop ways of overcoming them. It proves wise to do so on a smaller scale, thus avoiding significant negative repercussions.
Improving on mistakes gives employees the ability to develop plans, ideas, and strategies to either implement or bring to you for approval. This helps groom personnel into well-rounded supervisors who own their missteps and take pride in their successes while implementing positive change in the organization.
Allowing people to make errors does not mean “throwing them to the wolves.” Subordinates feel empowered while making changes and decisions. However, do not set them up for failure. Have safety measures in place to ensure that this remains a learning process that will not negatively impact operations, morale, or agency goals.
“Most everyone has a natural fear of giving up control of what they worked so hard to establish.”
Preparing the Next Generation
- Share information.
- Empower subordinates to make decisions.
- Delegate everything except what only you can do.
- Mentor personnel on strengths and weaknesses.
- Explain daily operations.
- Encourage positive leadership.
- Allow reasonable mistakes.
- Describe how you handle various situations.
- Clearly define the mission, goals, and objectives.
- Train subordinates to replace themselves because they too will leave someday.
Life happens. You cannot prepare for every possible scenario. Effective leaders understand that they may be assigned to another role in an organization, whether due to a transfer or a promotion. They also may leave an organization due to an external influence, such as the economy, or a life-changing circumstance. The only constant is change.
Your position constitutes an important component of the agency. When your chair becomes empty, it is too late to think about succession planning. You should have someone prepared, capable, and trained to take your place at any time. Doing so allows for an easier transition if the job unexpectedly become vacant.
New people who replace a well-liked professional and dynamic leader face a daunting task and sometimes feel overwhelmed. They find it even harder when they walk into it blindly and ill prepared, with no effective mentor and no training or concept of the position. This is a disservice to the new leader and the staff and could significantly affect the productivity of the agency, which subsequently may impact the quality of services provided to the community.
“When your chair becomes empty, it is too late to think about succession planning.”
Major Card can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “John C. Maxwell,” AZ Quotes, accessed March 27, 2018, http://www.azquotes.com/quote/588077.
2 “Train Your Replacement…Not Your Clone!” General Leadership, accessed March 27, 2018, https://generalleadership.com/train-replacement-clone/.