A Leader’s Most Important Role
Many of you probably saw news of my upcoming retirement. I feel a lot of joy knowing my wife, Pam, and I will have more time to devote to community and family. I’m also confident in the process that will guide ThedaCare to its next leader.
Why? Because we made succession planning a priority almost immediately after my appointment as CEO.
From speakers and leadership books over the years, I’ve noticed the best leaders start succession planning right out of the gates. So, I decided early on to set aside one executive committee meeting a year dedicated to succession planning.
In this group, we plan in two categories: a short-term “If I win the lottery and move to the Caribbean” scenario and a long-term, retirement scenario.
For the short-term, we review what’s in process, who would assume key duties, and options for a sudden vacancy so we are always prepared. We walk out of the meeting knowing exactly what needs to happen in an emergency. The long-term plan focused more on my timeline for succession, key qualifications for a successor, insights on the executive team’s readiness, and a list of “high potentials” both inside and outside of the organization. We use a template to document each person’s interest level, knowledge, skills and relationships.
One of the biggest hurdles I’ve heard from friends in business is that they don’t like thinking about their own career or exit plan. It’s hard and awkward. Some worry that having a candid conversation with their board or executive committee will make them seem uncommitted or like a lame duck.
I see it a little differently. A board’s most important job is selecting who’s going to run the company. It’s our role as leaders to ensure the best possible process is in place to guide them. Discussing a succession at the last second catches your organization surprised and unable to do its best work.
As a runner, I know the worst feeling is walking the last two miles of a marathon because you’re unprepared. I’d rather sprint to the finish line, and I intend to do that over the next six to nine months. Succession planning is similar. If there’s anything we need to be really good at, it’s this.
I encourage you to lean into the uncomfortable. It may feel odd to plan your exit just as you’re starting a new job, but it’s practical too. At ThedaCare, we use our process for the entire C-suite, through our vice president and director level positions. We also connect it closely to individual development plans to strengthen the overall leadership team.
Succession planning is a common challenge, whether you’re a large company or a family business. To create an environment where you feel comfortable starting a conversation, try sharing articles about the value of succession planning and current best practices or challenges. This keeps the focus at an organizational level rather than on you individually. And if your organization doesn’t have a board, consider engaging a trusted advisory group to help you get perspective and take some burden off your shoulders.
At ThedaCare, we have a familiar map that’s been vetted and discussed. Everyone feels good about it. I want this organization to serve this community well for decades to come, and it was my role to help us get there. I have a great deal of confidence—and readers can too!—that we’ve created a process and embedded it in a way that allows ThedaCare to find the absolute best person to lead it forward.
— Dr. Dean Gruner is president and CEO of Appleton-based ThedaCare. To send your thoughts to him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.