Passing the Torch: Mentoring and Succession Planning

After 47 years in healthcare, I have a lot to look back on, and for the most part I am satisfied with what I have been able to accomplish. Forty years ago I began reducing inventory levels, focusing on the cost of care as opposed to the price of supplies and partnering with vendors – years before those actions became the backbone of solid supply chain management.

But if you were to ask me what I am most proud of, I would have to say that it’s the relationships I have had with the people with whom I have worked. Many folks have told me that I have helped them make their way forward in their careers. A few weeks ago, I made a list of people with whom I have worked who are currently at a director level or above, and there were more than 20 people on it.

Not bad, I thought, as I sat smugly patting myself on the back. Mentoring so many people! What a guy!

Then I asked myself a couple of questions:

  • How many of those people did I knowingly mentor?
  • How many did I train to take my job?

By asking those questions, I discovered that I had inadvertently identified the difference between mentoring and succession planning. As I thought more, it occurred to me that both are sadly lacking in our industry, particularly within supply chain.

How many times have you witnessed this scenario: A hospital’s supply chain executive decides to move on, and the position is posted. Three to five internal candidates apply, and all are quickly rejected as “not being ready” yet. A search is conducted and candidates are brought in from the outside. Some of the internal candidates leave out of frustration. Three to five years later the process is repeated in its entirety.

What’s wrong with this picture? One could argue that nothing is wrong; it is just the way business is done in American healthcare.

The truth is, there are several things wrong with it.

What does bringing in someone from outside the organization say to the folks who have been working in the department? They are probably upset, for many reasons. First, there will be a new leader to break in. Second, there is the fear that the new person may want to bring in some people he or she has worked with in the past for key positions, and current staffers may be in jeopardy. Even if that doesn’t happen, a feeling will develop that upward mobility isn’t likely, so people will leave as soon as possible.

As I looked back on my career, I realized that only three of the 20-plus folks on my list had actually become supply chain leader at the same organization where we worked together, and only one of those was a direct successor.

Why was that? What is the difference between mentorship and succession planning?  Who does succession planning well? How could the organizations I worked at have done things better? What can you and your organization do?

Let’s answer the questions in order.

Why did only one of my supposed “mentees” succeed me? Simple – I never knew far enough in advance that I would leave a job to identify and train a successor. Frankly, I never had a plan for my own career, so how could I have had a succession plan?

What is the difference between mentorship and succession planning? Mentorship is something you do with and for an individual while succession planning is something the organization does for itself.

Mentors take time to listen. They ask questions; they give you direction when you need it. They listen when you have concerns. It is great to have a mentor, and it is an honor to be a mentor.

Succession planning is directly related to maintaining the enterprise as an ongoing, viable unit. The idea is to move the organization forward with as little disruption as possible whenever a change of leadership in a key position takes place by preparing for the situation in advance.

It should be noted that there is a big difference between a succession plan and a succession schedule. The United States has a succession schedule as it relates to the presidency. Everyone knows that if the office is vacated before the end of a term the vice president ascends to the position. But there is a big difference between having a plan and having a schedule.

Succession planning refers to a formal program to train and prepare for the passing of the torch within an organization. The key elements of such an approach include:

  • A commitment to maintain the culture of the organization
  • The recognition of the skills and potential leadership capabilities of people already present within the organization
  • The willingness to “coach them up”
  • The ability to decide where skills are absent and when to bring in folks from the outside

Who has done succession planning well? In the world of sport, one man did succession planning better than anyone else. Arnold “Red” Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1966. Starting in the 1956-57 season, Auerbach’s teams ran off a remarkable streak in which they won the NBA championship every year through 1966 except 1957-58. The Celtics represented the merger of vision, planning, coaching, mentoring and yes, succession planning. Every sports fan knows that the single key to the Celtics’ success was one William Felton Russell, the 6’10” center whose defensive skills and selfless team orientation provided the backbone for the team’s unparalleled success, but if one were to attribute all the glory to Bill Russell’s skills, one would miss the brilliance of Auerbach.

Auerbach knew that NBA players’ careers were brief. He also knew the value of role players. For outside shooting he had Bill Sharman. For frontcourt leadership he had Bob Cousy. To get rebounds and enforce things, he had “Jungle Jim” Luscutoff. To come off the bench and provide a needed scoring boost, he had Frank Ramsey.

That was in 1956. Throughout the years he brought in understudies for each of the players mentioned above, players such as Sam Jones (Sharman), K.C. Jones (Cousy), Bailey Howell and Satch Sanders (Luscutoff), and Don Nelson and John Havlicek (Ramsey). The result was a seamless movement as players retired and a decade of excellence unequaled in any sport.

That is the essence of succession planning.

What could the organizations I worked for have done better? Given the milieu of a career that began in the 1960s, I can honestly say that there was probably little the organizations I worked for could have done. For most organizations, the near- and long-term dimensions may mean one year for the former and three years for the latter. Until recently, such a narrow view has been the norm, not the exception.

What can your organization do? The first thing your organization can do is to recognize that the future does exist and that its needs need to be served beginning in the present. Specifically:

  • Five- and 10-year planning cycles need to be fleshed out and committed to.
  • Staff in all positions in all departments needs to be assessed and their capabilities matched to the needs of the disciplines in which they work.
  • People who can mentor need to be identified. Formal mentorship programs need to be implemented.
  • Potential leaders need to be identified. Their skill sets need to be matched against the needs of the leadership position for which they have been identified as a potential replacement and gaps need to be addressed.
  • All plans need to be visible and transparent.

When should you start? Mentoring, whether formal or informal, is an ongoing process. Everybody has mentors whether they have formally identified them or not.

Succession planning is another story.

Succession planning represents a commitment to the future of the organization and its employees. The organization that invests in such a program brings continuity to its operation and hope to employees.

The time to implement such a program is now, but with careful planning. While succession planning sounds relatively simple, it is far from it. The future, when assessed from what is in effect the past, is at best a guess.

This is best illustrated by a scene from the movie “Star Trek IV.” Confronted with having to calculate how to add two humpback whales named George and Gracie and thousands of gallons of water to the Starship Enterprise and make it back to the 23rd century, Mr. Spock, a notoriously logical thinker, announces he must guess at what’s needed

Captain Kirk expresses surprise. “A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.

Spock (to Dr. McCoy): “I don’t think he understands.”

McCoy: “No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.”

Spock: “Then you’re saying … it is a compliment?”

McCoy: “It is.”

Spock: “Ah. Then, I will try to make the best guess I can.”

Ultimately, that is what succession planning is – a best guess, albeit a highly educated one.

But if your organization takes the time and makes the effort to mentor your employees and include them and senior leadership in a program of succession planning, there is a much better chance that your crew will be like that of the USS Enterprise and that your organization will “Live Long and Prosper.”

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