Business abhors a vacuum. I tossed and turned many a night worrying whether we could fill fresh and soon-to-be-created vacancies. It’s a tricky balancing act, but focusing on your employees’ current performance and future potential turns your staff into a major-league team while also producing a resource-rich farm club. You’ll sleep better when you’re confident about facing the next surprise departure or summoning the courage to act when an employee’s poor performance forces your hand.
Begin today planning developmental experiences for tomorrow’s leaders. People need a chance to test their wings before you push them out of the nest. Focusing solely on the here and now carries a high cost—frequent turnover, operational interruptions, squandered human capital. To paraphrase Professor Harold Hill from Broadway’s The Music Man, “Planning Purely for the Present” starts with P, which rhymes with T, and that stands for “Trouble.”
Develop a Deep Bench
Routinely prepping people to take on more responsibility minimizes the chaos created by a surprise resignation. “I never knew when I was going to need a new store manager,” said regional manager Brad Burley, “so I always had two or three candidates lined up. It was great for morale because people knew there was a plan to help them advance.” Employees can sense when their departure will hurt you, and sometimes they subtly exploit it.Ask, Don’t Assume
It’s easy to think, that Jake’s a sales guy; I can’t see him as a customer service rep. Well, maybe Jake can. Don’t wait for an annual review to discuss career goals. It’s a natural thing to chat about in the parking lot. Ask about employees’ interests and where they see themselves two years and five years down the road.
Challenge people to learn new skills, especially in unfamiliar areas of the company. Start by asking them to back up colleagues during vacations, illnesses, and so-busy-I-can’t-think periods. If they resist, nudge them out of their comfort zone and encourage them to stretch. You won’t produce any butterflies if you allow people to stay tucked in the seductive safety of their cubicle cocoons.
It’s a safe bet people will feel threatened if they’re asked to train somebody else to do their job. Assure them their job isn’t at risk. Explain that it’s critical for the company to build in redundancy in order to run seamlessly when people get ill or if, God forbid, the proverbial bus takes somebody out. Toss in this fringe benefit: Their desk won’t be piled high with projects when they return from vacation.
Move People Around
Don’t nail people’s feet to the floor. Some companies transfer managers to other departments every few years to keep them fresh and flexible. (Newspapers routinely move reporters from one beat to the next so they don’t get stale.)
Use ’em or Lose ’em
There’s a tendency to keep a potential all-star right where he is because you don’t want to risk replacing him with someone less capable. Who knows how many Chris Speaks there are out there. In the course of eight years, Chris climbed from part-time tire tech to full-time sales to the service manager to store manager to, finally, franchise store owner. If you don’t allow people to explore and express the full range of their God-given abilities, they’ll find somebody who will.
Promote from Within
When a job opens, the first impulse should be to pass the baton to one of your own. Choking off advancement by regularly hiring outsiders for key positions dashes employees’ hopes and creates a culture of complacency. On the other hand, investing in your people’s professional development, and then rewarding them with plum promotions, delivers a powerful message: If you apply yourself, anything is possible. It took years—and plenty of kvetching employees—before I wised up to this one.
Avoid Ruffled Feathers
Sure, sometimes it’s necessary to recruit a heavy hitter with years of specialized training. In that case, let insiders know that you took them and their feelings into account. Like the time our less- than-effective CFO resigned. Daily cash crises were poking holes in our suddenly porous financial foundation. Somebody had to step up—fast—and plug the leaks. Luckily, we countered the wolf at our door with a Wolf of our own—Jim Wolf, our treasurer.
Keep a shortlist of all-star outsiders in case a high-level position opens up that no staffer is qualified for (or interested in). When I ran across, say, an impressive CFO, I jotted down his contact info. Ditto for quality referrals and great candidates we didn’t hire. KEY POINT