Brandt On Leadership -- The Secrets Of Your Success

Dec. 21, 2004
Look for these four must-haves in a successor.

Why are the successful so bad at succession? More specifically, why is it so hard for leaders to name successors who can continue an organization's growth and profitability? The classic answer, of course, is ego. If you believe what the psychiatrists tell us, most of us don't want our successors to succeed -- out of fear that they will eclipse our legacies. Consciously or unconsciously, we designate successors we know will fail. Yet most leaders I know aren't that devious, even subconsciously. And most of the owners of privately held manufacturing firms I've met genuinely want to find successors who will succeed -- if only so that owner can spend more time on the beach. My suspicion is that the real reason so many of us are so bad at succession is not misguided ego but misunderstood success. Acute in judging the character and abilities of others, we remain woefully blind to those qualities and skills in ourselves that create success. We overestimate (and overvalue) some strengths and weaknesses even as we underestimate (and undervalue) others. As a result, most of us have only the dimmest notions of why we have succeeded. This lack of understanding leads to all kinds of problems. Some of us hire successors who have outsized portions of whatever trait we think was most crucial to our success -- drive, sales ability -- without recognizing the need to balance that with four others. Others of us look for someone with skills we lacked -- organizational, financial -- forgetting that without other qualities, we never would have needed to hire for those skills in the first place. In either case, the succession fails -- not because of unconscious sabotage but because of our willful lack of self-knowledge. Why do we succeed as leaders? Four reasons: A Great Idea: Every great business starts with -- or eventually finds -- a great idea. You can be successful either by having the great idea yourself or by finding it. You need to be blunt with yourself about which talent -- creativity or recognition -- you have and in making sure you replace it. A Financial Intelligence: Bean-counting never built a business. But all successful companies have at least one leader with a gut feel -- a sort of free-flowing awareness -- for how the money should flow through the firm:

  • Where and how much to invest;
  • Why and when to cut back;
  • How to price, discount and profit.
You can find any number of replacements to count the money. But if you don't leave behind someone with a high financial IQ, you may as well sell the firm -- or your stock -- right now. A Human Touch: No great company was ever built or sustained without the commitment, enthusiasm and innovation of its employees, all of which are developed by a leader with a great human touch. Put some hard thought into what the culture of your company is -- or, better yet, ask your employees to help -- and how you contribute to it. Even if you're not the leader with the human touch at your firm, you need to make sure that your successor respects those managers and employees who are. An Enduring Passion: Every business has tough times. The ones that survive do so because someone -- you, your managers -- has the belief and moxie to lead (or push) the team through the hard times. You can't teach passion, but you can kill it. Make sure your successor knows that while your passion may have sustained the business, your ability to inspire others -- by giving them the authority, incentive and recognition that transforms passion into action -- is what made the company succeed. And that your own passion now will be confined to the beach. John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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