Give Your Successor Responsibility and Authority

Robert was a frustrated sales manager. He worked for Ivan, an opinionated, controlling, autocratic boss, who also owned the company. In the past, Robert had given everything to the job. He liked the business, the work and the customers – and he had a grudging respect for Ivan. But he was expected to make sales projections and prepare budgets without knowing the past year’s financials and results. He was supposed to increase sales, but lacked the authority to invest in marketing or sales promotions, without Ivan’s approval. Although there was an implied (but not yet clarified) agreement that someday Robert would buy the business, at this point he felt like a puppet, doing only what he was told.

Should Robert have the authority to spend money without approval? If so, how much? How could he be held accountable for results without having the authority to do what was necessary to make it happen?

Robert’s case isn’t unusual. He wanted more authority than the owner was prepared to give him. He felt that he wasn’t trusted, that he held a title in name only, and that he was powerless to excel in his role as sales manager and distinguish himself as a possible successor to Ivan.

When I talked with Ivan, it became clear that he didn’t trust Robert because of a mistake made several years earlier which had cost the company money. Unfortunately, there had been no frank discussion about Robert’s error, why it happened, how he might redeem himself, and, most important, what lessons he had learned. As a result, Ivan continued to treat him in a paternalistic manner … and Robert “lived down” to Ivan’s expectations. Responsibility without authority is demoralizing.

Dr. Gary Michael Durst identified four levels of authority that can be delegated to a prospective successor. They are dependent upon the successor’s level of experience and skill, as well as the level of confidence the owner has in the successor.

  1. Just do it. There’s no need to ask for permission, get approval or even report on it. Just get it done.
  2. Do it and report. In this case, keep the owner in the loop, but advance approval isn’t necessary.
  3. Do it only after discussion. The successor should consult with the owner; but in the end, the successor makes the final decision without interference from the owner.
  4. Do it only after approval. The successor presents the situation, outlines alternative solutions based upon research and then makes recommendations based on the best rationale. The owner approves, disapproves, or requests additional information. The successor does not move forward until the owner says.

If you truly want to groom a successor, you must give them responsibilities designed to help them grow; authority that is clearly defined and advances over time; and feedback that will help them learn from your vast experience and wisdom.

September 3, 2012

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