Get promoted by developing your replacement

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John Masse
John Masse

I have had a fantastic opportunity to build new teams from scratch or establish leadership for new organizations required for product growth. Each time I saw someone from my organization transition into a leadership role, it created more opportunities for me by becoming known as someone who pays attention and cultivates talent around them. We want those in our organization to take leadership roles; leaders will develop those around them to take on more challenging work. These leaders will grow the fastest and reap the best, or frankly, the most challenging positions.

It is common in our professional development that we prioritize the development of self over the growth of those around us. Even while developing others, we are establishing ourselves. While self-development will yield long-term success, we often overlook a critical detail of our organization's growth through knowledge development and practice.

Who will replace you when you move on?

That's right, moving on from our current role. Moving on could mean a transfer into another department or a promotion within the same one. Both role transfers and promotions yield similar opportunities, and those opportunities produce more opportunities for personal development. The movement of an individual from one position to the next, while sometimes transferable, can also leave a hole in the organization. It is wholistic and responsible for a leader to plan for what will happen to their organization or their colleagues when they move on.

It is often more straightforward for an individual contributor to move around an organization than for a manager. Managers are more challenging to move from one place to another. Managers are more complicated to move because of their subject matter expertise and their responsibility to their culture. To find the motivation to engage in this developmental style of developing a replacement, we will review several possibilities.

There is a new team forming in the company.

Sometimes, significantly while management is changing, new teams are formed to fill organizational needs. These teams could be new R&D, a new focus on a technology angle, for instance, AI or machine learning. Whatever it is, if you want to be able to engage in new opportunities of this nature, you do not want to be thinking about who is replacing you at the same time. We want to be ready to discuss your transition into a new strategic role at any moment. A manager who has been thoughtful enough to groom a replacement well beforehand can undoubtedly pass the torch and lead on.

Your organization will see additional investment.

If I gave you another N resources, what would you do with them?

When a team sees additional investment, it may create new management roles within that organization. The business is looking for professionals that can develop and scale the organization around them. The skill of identifying and coaching talent into positions of leadership will allow an organization to continue to grow. When a team is growing, we want to be in the best place possible to climb and let someone else take our previous role.

Once a company decides to invest in a team, rapid hiring will typically follow. Individual managers have a limit to how many people they can manage effectively, so a hierarchy of management is required to be effective. I recommend making sure to have conversations with your manager and peers about how you see the team growing. An organization's growth may need new leadership roles to become available, and your leadership style to change. For instance, you may move from managing engineers and programmers to leading a small team of managers.

Someone has left the company.

While it is sad to see someone leave the company, a resignation also means new opportunities for others. Companies source solutions for these gaps in the organization in several different ways that should interest us:

Source talent from within the company.

People who have networked well within an organization lead complex discussions and have shown easy to spot results within an organization. If the priority is essential, a company will be motivated to get the people they trust the most to fill the gap.

They are hiring externally.

When an organization hires externally, this is a sign that management is struggling to find someone internally. Company leadership has to look at the effect of moving a manager away from their existing team. If the impact of moving that manager would damage another part of the business, the role change is less than likely to happen, exceptional cases aside.

How to start your replacement strategy.

The first step into starting to develop a replacement is by first considering the question:

Who has enough of the right "stuff" that I can grow so that I might delegate some of my responsibilities?

After spending several months with a team, I think about who in my organization is easily motivated to expand their skillset. I also pay attention to who is engaging in the development of their soft skills. To gather this information, we need to be challenging our staff in both their tactical and social skills, so preplanning is necessary. I try to look for at least two people to develop at the onset of this objective. First, it gives me options if I lose one of them. Secondly, it challenges my thinking by inviting new possibilities I might not have otherwise considered.

Steps you can take to help get the conversation started:

  • Think about who you can begin to coach into a position that would allow you to delegate some of your responsibilities. 
  • Include soft-skills in your coaching plans. Some individuals will take more to soft-skill development than others. Focusing on the ones that are showing interest, or you have had a breakthrough with are excellent considerations.
  • Seek out those that are communicating well. Some people have a talent for describing complex ideas or come equipped with enough empathy to deliver the right content to their audience. Discovering these traits is like finding gold because the coaching progress can be quite rewarding.
  • Each quarter or so, collaborate on personal goals for these individuals and begin to share your intentions with them. Honesty and context help prepare the mentee for what they are yet to face, and encourage them to ask questions or admit that this might not be the track they are interested in.
  • Talk about where they see themselves in the next few years. Are they leading a team? Are they leading a project?
  • Something else to do is openly ask individuals during 1:1's if they had ever considered leading a team. This conversation invites people to share their understanding of what that means, and gives you, the leader, an opportunity to clarify expectations.

You may learn that the right talent just has not made itself known to you yet, or there is someone you might least expect would do quite well with a bit of coaching.

Changing jobs for growth.

Often opportunities outside of our current organization may present themselves, and we should entertain those opportunities. However, it is a worthwhile exercise to also look inwards at the options we create for ourselves. While moving to different organizations can yield what we want for professional development, if we are running from problems within the existing organization, we are also forfeiting the opportunity to make meaningful changes. Leaders who face challenges head-on will reap the benefits of the journey's experience and will be able to take that experience wherever they go.

Putting others before ourselves may lead to personal growth.

Identifying and developing someone for your job is not something taught in a university. For some of us, developing another person for the job creates a conflict of interest, but in fact, it might be our only way to continue growing in an organization. As an exercise, ask yourself, who will replace you? Or who from your organization could you promote to a leadership role in another part of the company? Either situation is strategically well-positioned. As a leader providing solutions to complex organizational challenges displays leadership maturity and engagement, yielding more opportunities your way. We have to be comfortable with giving away our current responsibilities to move on to different challenges.

Watch for signs in our thinking that would detract from thinking of developing others to take our job. For example, a good technical lead will empower those around them to make progress happen; the opposite effect would be a technical lead that maintains a hero status within their team. Are you the hero for your organization? If you are, it is an excellent time to start expanding your thinking into how to bring more of those around you into the fold of productivity.