Do you have a successor?

Dec 18, 2017

Passing on years of experience to those who will rise behind us is the epitome of leadership.

One of the most important things leaders can do is create more leaders. Yet, too few leaders take the time necessary to groom the future of their company.

Ask yourself a simple question: “Is our next CEO currently employed by our company?” When I ask senior firm leaders that question, the typical response I receive is a pause or an “I don’t know.” Few senior leaders I’ve spoken with can readily provide a name.

Maybe the senior leader had not given the idea of transition much thought. After all, if you have no ambition to retire or move on within the next five years, why would you begin to consider who would take over for you in your absence?

If the answer to the question is a pause, or worse, a “no,” those in leadership positions have two basic options. They can identify and grow internal successors or they can hire an external successor already equipped with the desired experience.

Ideally, a senior leader would be able to provide the names of several professionals who are prepared to move into leadership roles. I would much rather have a CEO tell me they don’t have an identified successor, than to have the CEO pause and think about the answer.

An immediate “no” answer is a healthy response. It shows the CEO has given some thought to the future of the firm. One CEO laughed when I asked him the question and then replied that it was something he really needed to do. He has plans for retiring and knows he needs a successor, but didn’t have one. He was astute enough to know his eventual successor was not a current employee of his firm.

The good thing about growing successors is that we don’t have to limit ourselves to just one. An effective mentoring process can yield several future leaders. As the head of large and small organizations, I purposefully mentored multiple emerging leaders, regardless of their potential to replace me. Some had all the attributes, but just needed experience, guidance, and an opportunity; while others, to put it politely, needed a lot of work.

Having a deep bench is a good problem to have. It signifies the firm is healthy and can quickly overcome the loss of a key leader.

What can you do to develop the future of your firm?

  • As a principal. Assess your current staff and identify those who aspire to a leadership role, realizing that not everyone wants to be a leader. Groom potential leaders by exposing them to such things as the firm’s decision making process, leadership committees, and financial tools.
  • As a mid-level leader. Identify emerging leaders among your newly licensed professionals, those working toward licensure, and even the interns. Take them out for lunch or a cup of coffee and discuss such things as design techniques and how to work with clients. Don’t make it a one-time thing; keep the conversation going.
  • As a new professional. Learn all you can about the business of the business. Seek a mentor who can offer insights into the firm’s strategy, its clients, and the design business. Take courses in leadership and financial management. Volunteer to lead activities in the firm, such as a charity event, golf tournament, or a blood drive.

The simple truth is that generations come and go and the best way to perpetuate the legacy of your company is to identify and groom the next generation of leaders. Passing on years of experience to those who will rise behind us is the epitome of leadership. Great leaders grow even better leaders.

Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.