Command Case Study

Situation

Many organizations go through the exercise of succession planning annually. Senior management diligently fills in the names of their backups in the box for each key position. Once complete, this exercise may lead to more questions. Are the people listed actually prepared for the next level? While they are likely talented and experienced, they are likely lacking command skills. Command skills are the higher-level competencies required of senior management. For example, someone with strong command skills relishes leading, takes unpopular stands if necessary, and encourages direct and tough debate but isn’t afraid to end it and move on. They are looked to in a crisis, face adversity head-on and are energized by tough challenges. Developing, managing, and delegating to a department or a division is much different than leading a single team. Speaking to the board of directors or peers at executive meetings requires a different skill than leading team huddles. One needs to be innovative and strategic, rather than just great at execution.

Impact if Unresolved

Most companies experience some turnover every year. If leadership is not confident in the succession plan, turnover of senior management could prove to be very costly. An internal candidate may be selected despite lacking key skills, which could result in a lengthy period of lost productivity. Plus, the internal candidate’s old role will need to be backfilled. Hiring from the outside is also an option, but it comes with an average replacement cost of 90%-200% of the position’s salary, based on recruiting, training, and lost productivity costs. At the VP level and above in the Fortune 500, 48% of new executives wash out in the first two years

Options For Improvement

For succession planning to be meaningful, the selected employees may require skill building so they are truly prepared for the next level. Internal or external training might be good options, or for a longer commitment, the selected employees may choose to attend an MBA or executive MBA program. These methods will help the selected employees pick up a few skills, but they will also likely be expensive and time consuming, with little of the material truly sticking.

Coaching

A proactive coaching engagement would be a targeted way to help individuals build the skills that are necessary for them to succeed at the next level. The coach would have an open discussion with both the individual to be coached and his/her leader to determine which skills seem to be lacking for advancement. This will bring early transparency to all parties. The coach would then conduct a skills inventory, vales assessment, and analysis of potential career derailers to help the individual embrace his/her strengths, weaknesses, behavior risks, and career values. Then by collecting extensive 360° feedback, the coach would have enough data to develop a gap assessment to see just how far the individual needs to go to be proficient in the skills required for the next level. It will also highlight unknown weaknesses and overused or untapped strengths. Together, the coach and the individual can then chart a course for development using a plan that incorporates small and intermediate wins. Along the way, the coach will also check in with the leader to gauge whether he/she is seeing the desired improvements. These discussions will occur often and early enough to allow time for course correction, if necessary.

Coaching Anecdote

Well-intentioned, hardworking, and intelligent individuals can hit a plateau just like anyone. It is often difficult for people who have experienced success to understand that what got them to their current level might not get them to the next. One of our coaches came across this scenario in an engagement with a middle-level manager named John at a business-to-business service company.

John is highly regarded within the company and was being coached as someone with high potential to fit into the succession plan. Both John and his leader had a difficult time articulating what exactly he needed to be prepared for the next level. We decided that rather than starting with a goal, we would start with some 360° feedback, which provided incredibly rich data. The data and in-person interviews showed that despite being extremely well-liked, John was heading toward a career plateau and did not even know it.

The 360° data told us that John scored incredibly high on individual contributor skills, but much lower on command skills. The collective group viewed John as average when it came to strategy, innovation, and being able to delegate.

John is a quietly confident individual, and the 360° data was jarring to him. Still, he was determined to understand it. Through reflection and coaching conversations, John had the realization that he was holding himself back from being a leader, and the root cause was something that he had lived with for decades. As a child, John had been a model citizen with great grades that succeeded in many activities. His parents were so focused on themselves that they rarely recognized John for his accomplishments. In his career, this manifested itself in wanting approval from leadership rather than trusting his thought process and his ability to lead. He craved being told that he was on the right track before moving forward and it gave him the appearance of not being able to lead. He had the ability to execute better than anyone when given direction, but he was preventing himself from leading.

We created a development plan built on small, confidence-boosting wins. John looked for one or two spots every week where he could lead a conversation or generate an idea or propose strategy rather than execute for someone else. John learned to trust his own ability to lead. Subsequent 360° feedback showed that he was fully prepared for the next level.