Leader driven Harmony #11: Know your Boss’s job and Your Replacement’s Name

by Mack McKinney on February 11, 2011

If your boss quit, died or otherwise left the job tomorrow, who would replace him/her?  You can bet that your boss’s boss thinks about that.  It is called continuity planning or succession planning and the bigger the organization, the more important it is.  The leadership wants to be sure the enterprise marches on when a key person leaves, gets sick or dies.  And the way to ensure that is to plan well in advance for smooth transitions.

What does this have to do with you, you ask?  You are not slated to move up into a more senior position in your organization anytime soon?  Don’t be too sure.  It could happen tomorrow, without warning.

I was a very junior manager at a major defense company when a mid-level manager suddenly died of a heart attack while on vacation in the Caribbean.  Instead of promoting one of the 15 people in his organization to fill the job, my boss’s boss’s boss picked me.  Without warning he called me and my boss into his office the week after the death and asked me if I wanted the job.  I told him I was honored to be considered for the job but that I already had a great job working elsewhere in his organization and would like to stay there.  He said to think about it and to let him know my decision in the next few days.

On the way back to our work area my boss said “What changes are you going to make in the organization?” to which I replied “I am not sure I am going to take the job.”  He immediately stopped walking and looked at me, genuinely puzzled, and said “You must have been in a different meeting than the one I just attended.  You were just assigned that job.”  I protested that “Wally said I could think about it let him know . . .” and my boss cut me off saying “About 3 minutes ago, you became the new manager of that organization.”  And so I had.

Often it won’t happen to you this way.  Instead, you’ll move up from within your organization, replacing your boss who leaves the organization for one reason or another.  And here is where seeking a broader perspective on things can stack the deck in your favor.   Here are some tips on getting ready and getting selected for your boss’s job:

  1. Anytime your boss talks about his/her concerns, challenges or problems, listen and offer support.  If that means helping with one of his projects, in addition to your own work, do it.  And don’t brag to others about such involvement . . . in fact don’t discuss it with anyone not directly involved in the boss’s project.  If the boss wants that info released, he will release it.
  2. Anytime your boss or her peers talk about the larger organization’s position, posture, reputation, liabilities, etc. listen and learn.  Try to get “in sync” with the leadership of your organization and learn to see the bigger picture they must deal with.
  3. Be humble but be ready.  Opportunities come at unpredictable times.  When asked if you are ready for more responsibility, if you believe that you a) are ready now or b) are almost ready, respond that you are always learning but that, yes, you are ready for a bigger challenge.  And then, as they say in Hollywood, fake it ‘til you make it.
  4. If you know you need assistance in an area, ask for that help as a condition for taking the job.  If you get in over your head later, ask for help fast.  People do not mind assisting open, proactive, genuine people who need a little coaching.  Just be humble and admit that you need some education in finance or engineering or whatever courses you slept through in college and then find yourself a mentor/coach to help you understand the basics.

And one last point:  don’t ever be “irreplaceable”.  You cannot be promoted out of your present job if you are in a key position and there is nobody to replace you!  The time to start training your replacement is yesterday!

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