Paul “Bear” Bryant was arguably the best American football coach of all time. During his 25-year career at the University of Alabama, he won six national championships and 14 Southeastern Conference (SEC) titles. When asked about the key to his success, Bryant spoke just three words:
“Expect the unexpected.”
I’ve found most leaders don’t think enough about Coach Bryant’s wise words—especially as they pertain to people and succession. Unfortunate and/or unforeseen events inevitably affect employees. If you don’t plan for them, you’ll scramble to recover—potentially at an extremely inconvenient or inopportune time. Indeed, filling an unexpected leadership staffing void is often urgent, distracting, and damaging to your operating results.
At this point, you might be thinking, “If most staffing events are unexpected, how can I plan for them?”
Although the timing and specifics of each individual situation might be surprising—and even bizarre—the idea that they’ll occur is not. Consider these stranger-than-fiction, real life scenarios I’ve encountered with some of my coaching clients over the past two months:
In all these situations, critical team members were literally “here today and gone tomorrow.” None could have been specifically predicted, but the probability of SOMETHING happening is always greater than zero!
Meanwhile, employees have been quitting their jobs at historic rates since 2020—the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average of 4 million Americans quit each month. The numbers don’t lie. Believing that the unexpected won’t happen with the people in your organization is not only unrealistic—it’s irresponsible. You MUST think about succession, and you can prepare for the unexpected.
Here are four sustainable strategies that mitigate the impact of unexpected leadership turnover.
Throughout his career, Bear Bryant understood the importance of mentorship. “The idea of molding [people] means a lot to me,” he said. As successful coaches in any team sport know, being prepared for the unexpected requires a deep bench and a “next person up” mentality. In a business context, this involves cultivating next-level leaders so that when (not if!) the time comes, they’re prepared to step up and into a new role.
There’s a tendency for leaders to be complacent in this area because when you have a high-performing employee, you tend to leave them alone while directing your attention to low performers and other problems in the business. Meanwhile, the A-Player—someone with the potential to be a valuable, promotable long-term contributor—doesn’t feel particularly challenged or developed. Unsurprisingly, over time, they become bored and disengaged, which increases their flight risk.
You can engage and develop your rising stars by coaching for growth. Coaching for growth fosters all three prerequisites of high engagement: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Your job as a leader is to identify, communicate, and coach the behavioral patterns that stand in the way of each employee’s growth and development. Coaching for growth sustainably builds capability, independence, and scalability. Even better, A-Players love it!
Sadly, many leaders balk at the imperative to speak with the straight-shooting candor that coaching for growth requires. Ruled by fear, they revert to less effective techniques. I urge you to avoid this at all costs! Instead, tell the brutal truth (with caring and kindness) your people need to hear so they can continue to learn and grow. They’ll be able to do more, to think at a higher level, and to become more independent in their work which, in turn, makes them more promotable over time.
As you build bench strength within your organization, don’t be afraid to raise your expectations. Research shows we get what we expect—from ourselves and from others. If you want your staff to perform to higher standards, start their journey by increasing your expectations of them. Best of all, you’ll discover that high expectations are virtual catnip for high performers and a potent repellant for low performers.
In addition to cultivating talent inside the firm, it’s also crucial to focus outside. With a small amount of energy, consistently applied, people outside your firm can join your “virtual bench” — a prequalified talent pool in orbit around your firm who can be called when the need arises.
Every senior leader in the company should be accountable to network externally and seek outside talent for your virtual bench. It’s as simple as gaining agreement to remain in touch with talented people without regard to your current staffing needs. Here’s how that sounds: “There could come a time when we’ll have a need for you at our firm. I don’t know when, but would it be okay if we stayed in touch?” Great people will never say no, then it’s on the leader to periodically stay in touch.
If each of your senior executives maintains a small handful of people on their virtual bench, you’ve instantly got a list of people to call when there’s an “unexpected” (or planned) opening. It doesn’t guarantee you’ve got the next hire in-hand, but it’s a lot quicker than advertising a position and starting with no candidates.
Even better: Data suggests filling roles from your virtual bench is more successful than utilizing job boards or head-hunting services. A 2019 Jobvite survey reported that nearly 70 percent of jobs were found via networking—50 percent from friends, and 37 percent from professional networks.
Maintaining a virtual bench doesn’t cost a penny and is relatively low-energy, but it does require discipline to stay in touch every three-to-six months. The return on that time, when you need it, is extremely high.
Thinking about, coaching, and developing people are fundamental elements of your role as a leader. Accordingly, your senior leadership team should discuss people quality and succession each quarter, as my clients do.
During our full-day quarterly leadership meetings, each executive on the senior team evaluates their direct reports on both performance and cultural fit in front of their peers. To counter potential bias and blind spots, we open the floor for feedback, comments, and discussion, then categorize each direct report as an A, B, or C Player. On occasion, as warranted, I’ll ask leaders to evaluate two layers into the organization, not just their direct reports.
The real value of this exercise isn’t the rankings—it’s the conversations that ensue and the continual reminder that leaders MUST be accountable for the quality and continual growth of their people. It’s quite common for a manager to discover they’re not accurately assessing an employee, or there’s a diamond in the rough they need to polish. My newer clients are often surprised when they realize the conversation isn’t only about low performers (although that’s part of it), but rather to ensure their highest performers remain challenged and engaged. This process balances energy between A and C Players while also identifying the B’s who have potential to grow into A’s.
This quarterly review process keeps senior leaders focused on people and continually developing bench strength—ensuring they’re prepared for the “unexpected,” high-performers remain challenged and engaged, and the right people get the right opportunities over time.
As a CEO or senior leader, you need to be clear with your direct reports about how you expect them to think about employees. There are two common scenarios I see that constrain organizational agility and the ability to respond to “unexpected” turnover:
Both situations require more senior leadership intervention (i.e., it’s on YOU!). If you don’t see your senior team doing the things you need them to do, you have to lean in and set—or clarify—the expectation. Everyone in leadership must understand that thinking about succession through growth and development is critical. If they can’t or won’t then THEY become the C-Players on your team and should be coached and potentially replaced themselves.
The incentive for leaders to invest in people is the creation of leverage—a prerequisite to sustainably scale. Your team must understand that by coaching for growth and sharing resources, they can accomplish more through others and elevate themselves to focus on more strategic, higher value activities. The leverage they create ensures the company continues to grow while providing ample opportunities for others.
One way to cement and reinforce your commitment to developing people is via your firm’s core values. Values pertaining to learning and growth are quite common and quite powerful, provided you are willing to lead by example and hold others accountable.
In his book, The Infinite Game, author Simon Sinekwrites that most leaders are wired to think of business as finite: There are inevitably winners and losers, and every year you either achieve your goals or you don’t.
On the other hand, infinite-minded leaders understand that goals, metrics, and timelines are arbitrary. The company itself is viewed as a vehicle to help advance an ideal or solve a human need. Ego is put aside to address the cause and, rather than competing, teams display high trust. Never satisfied with the status quo, they continually seek others—worthy rivals, as Simon calls them—to help them learn and grow.
Leadership succession is, in itself, an infinite game. There are no goals to achieve, no milestones to hit, and no endpoint where you “win” the game. Teamwork and continual improvement pave the way for more impact, more significance, and less disruptive turbulence along the way.
Yes, unexpected, people-related events and turnover will always happen. It’s your job as a leader to understand that, expect it, and be as prepared as possible by activating these four strategies.
It worked for Bear Bryant. It works for my clients.
It will work for you, too.
Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.
Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:
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