Move over, Grover

Aug 01, 2021

You need to be identifying your successor and preparing the road for them so they can be successful.

Let’s face it. If you work as a manager in an AEC organization of any size or scale, and if you don’t want to be doing the same job for the rest of your life, you need to be identifying your successor and preparing the road for them so they can be successful. If you don’t do this, you’re stuck. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being stuck!

You may be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but I don’t have a successor. No one could do my job as well as I can.” It’s normal to think that way (I’ve done it myself at various times), but that doesn’t make it right. I think what you are really saying is, “No one will do my job the same way I do,” and that’s OK. My personal experience is they may eventually do a better job than you do in your role but it’s up to you to make that happen.

Finding the right successor and getting them up to speed may not be as simple as saying you want to do it. My experience is that internal candidates are almost always preferred, IF a suitable candidate is already in the firm. Newcomers are more likely to adopt one of two “modes” for lack of a better word. They will either a) not do anything for fear of being rejected by the team. That isn’t good. Or b) they will start changing things too quickly because they don’t understand the culture and get shot in the back by their own team. That isn’t good, either. Yet in spite of these two potential negative outcomes, there are times it is necessary to find someone outside with certain skills and attributes and bring them on board. The good news about an outside successor versus an internal one is that they may have new ideas that they can bring to the organization. There are many firms in this business that are so inbred because they have very little turnover. That isn’t good.

Internal candidates, on the other hand, are bound to know the rest of the team and better understand the culture and systems in place. That may help them get up to speed in your role faster and lead to a greater chance of their being accepted by the team. My personal preference is to go internal if at all possible, which may mean certain criteria for years of experience or educational or registration credentials will have to be compromised because cultural knowledge is more important.

Whomever you pick, the more time you have to get them and everyone else ready for them to assume your role, the better. You can see how others react to them. You can coach them on the nuances of the role and share your insights and experiences with the other team members. Obviously, you don’t want to pass on any prejudices about the people to them, so you have to be careful about what you share with them.

As far as the rest of your team goes, the longer they have to get used to the reality that there will eventually be a change, the better. The worst thing that can happen is you send out an email on a Friday evening that someone else will be taking your job. That will shock (and scare) your team. Getting a new boss is always disconcerting on a certain level, unless you have no allegiance from your team. He or she may not understand you and the expectations that have been laid on you for your job. Changing those expectations quickly is stressful.

I liken the naming of a successor well before they take over to the situation of changing a company policy. My experience is telling everyone that in 90 days one of your policies will change is more likely to be accepted than changing it and saying the new policy will take effect immediately. People need time to mentally prepare.

If your successor – whomever that is – is going to be equipped to take on your job, you will need to show interest in them and spend time with them before and after they assume your role. To make that time and your coaching most effective, having some sort of set time to talk every week and a regular agenda to guide your discussion will be helpful. These will have to be two-way discussions, with you doing plenty of listening to them. Hopefully, whomever you pick is coachable. If he or she already knows everything and doesn’t value your input, odds are they won’t work out. You could have picked wrong.

If and when you become aware the successor isn’t going to work out, whether before or after you have passed off the baton, it’s up to you to fix the situation. You can’t let it go on. That may mean you will need to step back again and start all over. Little is more painful or frustrating. But it doesn’t change the fact that you will need to do it. Make a better pick next time and do a better job with your coaching, as well as a better job prepping your team to be ready for someone different, and hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes again. Divorce is painful, but sometimes necessary.

I think this whole subject needs a lot more attention than it gets. If you look at a list of Zweig Group's clients, there are some rapidly growing companies that make up the bulk of that list. These successful, growing firms have many management transitions taking place at once. It’s super critical that these transitions go well or the company will have costly turnover and their growth will be stymied. One thing I know for sure is that everyone needs to identify their successors or nothing will happen. You may need to force each of your key people to take that first step NOW if this is something you believe is important to your long-term success!

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. 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.