What Would Your Successor Do?

That’s a scary question to ask yourself. But unless you do, your boss may decide to ask it himself. And that will be scarier by far.
Susan CrammSeptember 12, 2012

If you’re tempted to ask your boss, “Am I your guy?” don’t bother. 

My guess is that you probably already know his answer.

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After years of focusing on costs, businesses are searching for top-line growth and finding their organizations are not up to the task.  For incumbent leaders, the realization that after years of hard work they’ve built an organization that, in the eyes of many, is not working is tremendously humbling.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the support functions (finance, IT, human resources, and legal).   All roads leading to business change wind through these departments.  But take a look at a company’s typical project list and it’s clear that these roads more often than not are congested.  Increasing throughput is a function of focus and resource flexibility: capabilities that are often in short supply.  Most organizations have left the concept of “focus” in the ditch, fearful that making hard choices will lead to wrong choices.  And resource flexibility (people, process, and technology) is at an all-time low even as productivity is at an all-time high.  We have fewer people working harder with (sadly) little time to figure out how to work smarter.

Rather than asking your boss a question that will raise, rather than squelch, concerns, it’s much more productive to ask yourself:  “What would my successor do?”  After all, if you think you may be replaced, you might as well replace yourself (with your new-and-improved self) and get your boss thinking about how you are the answer to his prayers rather than the cause of his problems.

Firing yourself isn’t easy.  Over time we have a tendency to shape our organizations in our own image.  Problems that were easy to spot when new to the job become almost invisible.  Similarly, relationships that were full of promise in the beginning evolve into static roles and routines founded on assumptions that, good or bad, are difficult to change.

But you have time on your side.  Companies don’t like to fire employees especially senior leaders.  You’ll have plenty of time to become the new-and-improved you as long as you start redefining your leadership agenda (your goals, strategies, tactics, and relationships) early. When is early? Early is the moment your gut tells you something isn’t right: when influential peers starts taking pot shots, when a serious operational glitch garners bad publicity and reveals systemic vulnerabilities, when a new boss starts asking questions that are difficult to answer, when each day consists of more adversity than accolades. 

To be your own successor, mirror the behavior of newly hired counterparts:

  • Don’t complain, don’t explain.  Complaining makes one look small and weak.  Explaining why something is messed up makes you appear defensive and close-minded.
  • (Re)Learn the business.  Identify critical stakeholders – down, across, out, and up – and conduct interviews (using a structured questionnaire) to reintroduce you to your business: customer needs, competitive positioning, objectives, strategies, initiatives, performance, challenges, and opportunities.
  • Make new friends (and keep the old).  Rethink the power structure (who has authority and who influences those that do) and rid yourself of any preconceived notions about who is naughty or nice.   Adjust your style to accommodate the needs of others by thinking deeply about how others like to communicate, process information, make decisions, and manage conflict.
  • Play offense.  Uncover and communicate the bad news before anybody else does.  For example, if you’re concerned about what an audit may reveal, commission the audit (or the benchmark, or organizational assessment) yourself.
  • Ask for what you need.  Newbies are bold about airing ugly truths and equally fearless about asking for what they need to be successful.  If there are disasters in the making, kill the initiatives.  If your direct reports can’t fire themselves, help them along.  If processes and technology look like a Jackson Pollack painting, call it a “transformation” and get ready for three years of hell.  If you need more money and people, make the case.
  • Sell, sell, sell.  You know what you want.  You know what your new friends want.  Connect the dots.  Make sure people see themselves in the reflection of your plans.  Deliver quick wins.

Becoming your own successor takes a lot of time.  Find it by extracting yourself (as best as you can) from day-to-day operations for a period of 6090 days.  Things may get a bit worse, but the downside is slight given the opportunity to map out a plan that will make things much, much better.

Susan Cramm is an executive coach and president of Valuedance, an executive-coaching and leadership-development firm specializing in information technology. She is a former CIO and CFO, and is the author of The 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT (Harvard Press). Susan can be reached at

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