Don’t advise, act!

Mar 21, 2021

Mentors do not fight for candidates’ advancement opportunities. That is the job of champions.

If 2020 taught us nothing else, leadership matters. We also learned about the power of action. Regardless of your political persuasion, the single-minded focus and drive of the winners of the Georgia Senatorial race gave us a striking example of what it means to fight for a cause that holds deep meaning for you.

The same principle applies to leadership succession in companies. With the continued departures of baby boomers from the workforce, leadership succession stands at a critical juncture. While there’s little doubt senior executives care deeply about their companies, they struggle with passing the baton. Many reasons explain why succession plans don’t happen. Even when a company creates a plan, the difficult conversations and actions needed to make them work proves to be a challenge. The result is inertia.

To surmount the inertia, somebody needs to shoulder the cause of fighting to put in place the firm’s future leaders before they give up or leave.

The importance of champions. Leadership succession programs involve formal training, stretch goals, and front-line assignments. However, these tools fall short without an overlay of strong guiding hands.

Many companies use mentorship to fill the role. Mentors step in at auspicious times to give invaluable advice and support. Then they step back to let mentees execute. In short, mentors advise and mentees act. Mentors do not fight for candidates’ advancement opportunities. That is the job of champions.

Champions provide action. They are company insiders who come equipped with organizational power that they are prepared to exercise on behalf of a leadership candidate.

Three things to know. To optimize the advancement of a prospective leader, the champion should know the following:

  1. The candidate. Advocating for someone is highly personal, requiring that the champion and the candidate form a strong relationship. Before putting political capital at risk, a champion must know the candidate well enough to determine whether the person has the right skills, judgment, and values to succeed. Skills can be relatively easily observed and measured as part of routine performance reviews. Judgment and values require spending both formal and informal time with the candidate to learn how they approach life. While finding sufficient time in our warp speed world can be difficult, it is essential that the champion find it to assemble the facts they need to know about a candidate and how best to argue their case. In addition to the time commitment, getting to know the candidate better can land a champion in uncomfortable situations. A champion might have to watch an emotionally charged business meeting where the candidate struggles to find their sea legs. Or the champion might be an introvert, eschewing socializing, even in a work context. Conversely, they might be an extrovert and prefer hanging around people similar to them. The best candidates might be dissimilar to the champion but can contribute vital talent to the company. Preference for the familiar can be a barrier to champions establishing relationships with women. I remember meeting with three male leaders from a large design firm about their reluctance to invite women associates to join them after work to socialize with clients. The answers began with, “Oh, they wouldn’t want to come.” I rolled my eyes. Then, “My wife wouldn’t like it.” Really? And finally, “I just want to spend my time with people like me!” Points for honesty, and a problem, which can be fixed.
  2. The company leadership profile. To choose a candidate, a champion needs a framework to determine the person’s fitness for the leadership role. Using a company leadership profile as a measuring stick forces the company and its champions to focus on leadership attributes based on what will yield business success, rather than on personalities. To create a leadership profile, the company should take a steely eyed look at its future and identify its strongest competitive position. That means figuring out their highest expertise, the market demand for it, and any other winning offerings, such as high touch customer service or audacious new concepts. Then the company can pinpoint the key leadership skills, behaviors, and other attributes that will deliver on that position.
  3. How to manage risk. The crux of championship is advocacy. To make sure their candidate receives the right advancement opportunities, the champion must fight for the candidate, running the risk of hurting their reputation if the candidate fails. They also face the risk of pushback. People might challenge the candidate’s qualifications, undercut the champion to promote their own candidate or simply object to hang on to power. Whatever the case, the champion should enter the arena armed with facts mapped against the backdrop of the company’s strategic plan for the future, its leadership profile, and the importance of promoting to talent retention. Then they must argue why their candidate qualifies. Whatever the outcome, it’s important for the champion to place high value on doing the right thing for the business and stand proud.

Championing a future leader will galvanize the ascendency of leadership talent, spark important company conversations, and push your firm toward the future.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached, taught and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self-guided discovery mission to navigate the adventure of pursuing one’s dreams based on the Journey principles. She can be reached at

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