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SUCCESSION

Suster: You Can't Afford a Weak Link

Like it or not, you've got to plan for contingencies in case a key team member leaves.

As I have argued before, a few key people in every organization can make a huge difference in its success. This is the case for very large companies, even at a citywide level.

But that doesn't forgive the CEO, the board, or for that matter, anybody in an organization from allowing weak links.

In fact, nearly every team I work with should think about succession planning in the event "that somebody gets hit by a beer truck." (I don't know where I got that phrase, but it's stuck.)

I do know where I learned the lesson of succession planning--when I was 23-years-old at Accenture. On my first project, the partner on my job said, "To be successful you need to become irrelevant."

"Huh?"

"Well, your job is to build a team that quickly grows into taking on more of your responsibilities," he responded. "That's the fastest way to move up--when you're not needed anymore. Most managers spend all of their time controlling information and trying to protect their job by not sharing or not delegating. You'll always be small time if you work like that."

That was ingrained in me from then on. 

As a first-time CEO, I took that to the next logical conclusion.

It wasn't so much that I wanted to "rise to the next level" as I wanted to lead at a higher level. I did this by making time to spend thinking about how to propel the business forward, rather than having my nose buried in a spreadsheet or having to lead all the big sales campaigns.

So, I tried to build a team that could own my job. And then, my CTO quit.

I had assumed that my core team was with me until the end. The CTO was a super close friend (and former roommate). I honestly had never considered that he would go, so I didn't spend enough time thinking about who would step into his role if he "got hit by a beer truck."

Luckily, we had been working with a contractor who showed great leadership potential. I asked if he wanted the role, and he took it. Still, I had never actively thought about who would step into the role in a tough spot. I had never talked to my CTO about making sure he had no single-points-of-failure on his team, including himself.

From then on, we all talked about it. How did we cross-pollinate skill sets in case our lead DBA left? What happened if our front-end designer gave her two-week's notice? What happens if you get hit by a beer truck?

Ultimately, when I decided to leave the company after six years, I was easily able to hand over the keys and get "promoted" to being a board member.

This is hardest with an early-stage start-up that only has five to ten people. Perhaps redundancy isn't possible at that level.

But when you begin to scale there is simply no excuse for not having succession planning for your direct reports. You need to encourage them to think about this within their own teams. 

Besides, cross-pollinating skills is good for teams.

And as a board, it is our responsibility to ask the tough questions. All it takes is one critical departure in one organization I'm involved with to get the reminder: Firefighting is never fun.

This article originally appeared on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table

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Last updated: Oct 1, 2013

MARK SUSTER | Columnist

Mark Suster is a two-time entrepreneur who has gone to "the dark side" of venture capital. He joined GRP Partners in 2007 as a general partner after selling his company to Salesforce.com. He focuses on early-stage technology companies. You can find him on Twitter @msuster.




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