Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at email@example.com.
Q. I have been criticized for not focusing on succession. If something happens to me there is a plan, but truthfully, it’s an emergency plan. I’m not really sure the company will be able to continue to grow without me.
—Founder and CEO
I know it’s hard. You built this company and you want to be the one to drive it. But it’s more important that it keeps going no matter who is at the steering wheel. That is what legacy is all about.
From the earliest days of getting started, you need to make sure you have the talent you need to achieve the destiny of your company. In the beginning, you have to think about succession planning as recruiting. We all know the bleak statistic—50% of hires don’t work out. Additionally, though you may not be worried about people leaving your company, it is inevitable that this will happen. What if they decide they don’t like you, or they find a job that pays five times what you can? Or they move away? Even if you have someone who seems great, you can’t sit back and think you are all set for eternity. You need to always be planning who can step in so that you will not be left in the lurch.
This is a tricky balance: You must continue to challenge and groom your talent, and at the same time you need to explore and secure additional options in case it doesn’t work out with your current team member. It may sound excessive, but the fact is it’s impossible to spin up a team of the best talent from ground zero—this can only happen with constant investment in this effort. So how do you approach this delicate balance?
At all times you need to know the following:
In each position, how good is the talent you’ve got? If everything goes according to plan, will they be able to scale with you? Will they be able to grow so they can stay with you two years from now? How can you know that? Investigate what you do know. How are they doing today in delivering on one product? They are managing three people now; how is that going? Then, extrapolate out. What happens when they need to also manage customers? Based on how they manage 3 people, will they be able to manage 30? Where do they break?
Who’s on your bench? Even if someone is able to scale with you (and especially if they are flourishing, as this means that they will be promoted and then need to be replaced), you need to make sure that you have talent underneath them who can step in and do their job.
Who’s best in class outside your company? You need to know who the best CMO is, who the best engineers are, who the best HR professionals are so you can develop relationships with them and try to tap them down the road. Marc Benioff is excellent at getting the best people on board even if there is not a position open—he’s always looking to get people “on the bus” and he moves them to the right seat later. Similarly, Meg Whitman always made it her business to build a strong bench. Always ask yourself: Is there somebody in the world who would be a dream candidate even if I can’t have them in that exact role?
So, what about you?
This is a difficult question. No one wants to think about getting replaced—it’s a lot more fun to think you are indispensable—but you must plan for succession. The board should know who will take your place should anything happen that would change your leadership at the company. Public companies have that discussion at least once a year. It’s not always easy, but it’s always necessary.
You always want to recruit people better than you. And you always have to give people a chance. The fact is, a lot of people are willing to step up. They just need the opportunity and the mentorship. Give it to them.