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Succession Planning: Securing Your Intellectual Capital

None of us expected a former ballerina to die at age 54. She was active, fit, and determined to work in our little office until she was well into her 60’s. And then she was gone. The loss hit me personally first. Her smile, her dry wit, and her tenacity were but a few of the qualities that made her so loveable. Known throughout our organization as “Mama,” she was irreplaceable. Except I was her replacement.

She had been manager of her department for over ten years, and an assistant manager for a decade before that. As her successor, I faced the reality of what I did not know daily. This department, this staff, which meant so much to Mama, was in crisis. Losing her highlighted how much Mama knew and how much we did not. The chasm was great, and we had no way to fill it.

Not every personnel loss is as devastating as an unexpected death but most are pretty sudden. Even two weeks’ notice leaves precious little time for Succession Planning. So why do we wait until we have to do it before tackling this important task?

Succession Planning. Ugh. Do I have to?

What if succession planning is a strategic advantage? Could it be the cornerstone of building consistency into your company? Could it be the answer to high turnover and new employee onboarding?

What should we have done to protect Mama’s intellectual capital?

The loss of intellectual capital is common, especially now as the graying workforce means more and more Baby Boomers ready to retire.

Many believe turnover is inevitable. We lose one employee, so we hire, promote, or transfer a replacement. Then we wait for that employee to figure out how to do the job with little guidance or training. Worse still, the information dump that often comes with onboarding rarely includes the unique practices that the legacy employee designed and perfected over their years at the helm.

Executives and veteran team members built successful processes that keep your company running. Their knowledge is your intellectual capital: it belongs to the company they so faithfully served. Just as you record and maintain property assets, you must protect and preserve your intellectual capital. You must prioritize the quantification and categorization of this knowledge. Dissect it into useable, updateable content. Share it with your junior team members and new hires.

Automate your intellectual capital. Build it into your core function software behind a “Help” link. Or print it on sparkly paper and place it in a glitter-covered binder. Make yet another Power Point presentation, because none of us are tired of looking at slides. The format is up to you, but do not allow more time to pass before capturing this key knowledge.

Is this the same as writing a standard operating procedure?

No. A standard operating procedure, or SOP, provides step-by-step instructions to carry out routine operations. SOPs strive for efficiency, quality, and standardization. Preserving your intellectual capital should do much more.

I still remember my first days as Mama’s replacement. I scoured her office looking for any hint of her – how she managed. I found volumes of old SOPs for minor tasks that the staff all knew by heart. I found mountains of policy letters, most of which left the realm of relevancy as soon as the digital age began. Nowhere in her office or hard drive was the manual I needed – Mama’s Way. How did she resolve conflicts between her subordinate leaders? How did she coax suppliers, sister departments, and partners into giving her staff whatever they needed to succeed? How did she prioritize, delegate, and accomplish the many tasks assigned to this one position?

My transition as Mama’s replacement took a full year, much longer than it should have, longer than the staff or our customers deserved. As a result, I made a promise to myself I would not leave my replacement in the same knowledge gap – bewildered and clawing the sides trying to climb out of the experience chasm.

How does succession planning begin?

You know your key positions. Start there. You know which executives are eyeing the horizon and nearing retirement. Start there. Need help? Start with a consultancy like Clemson Road Creative that can help you devise a plan.

I knew we were relocating, so I left my successor with a binder labeled, “How Jodie Did It.” It wasn’t automated, it wasn’t perfect, but hopefully it gave her the tools to transition. I still miss Mama. Hopefully my successor doesn’t miss me.

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