Mentoring Your Successor

The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a shaky start to their 2012-2013 NBA season. Only a few games into the season, the organization has decided to fire head coach, Mike Brown. As of Monday morning, they had hired Mike D’Antoni, the former coach of the New York Knicks, who had himself resigned his post after several unsuccessful seasons. Before this decision however, the Lakers had been in, ultimately unsuccessful, talks with Phil Jackson. Jackson had coached the Lakers from 1999-2011, one of the most successful periods in the franchise’s history, and is considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball.

While the negotiations did not shake out, the story caught my attention because one of Jackson’s requirements for joining the organization was that he be able to hire an accomplished assistant coach that he could mentor to a point that the assistant would ultimately be able to take over the team. When Jackson left the team in 2011 he had intended to retire and, while he was at least somewhat willing to come out of retirement for his beloved team, he did not want to sign on for the long haul. What Jackson saw as the best solution for both himself and the team was to let Jackson chose his successor and mentor him until he was capable of running the program on his own.

Some other organizations have tried this method successfully but many heads of organizations shy away from doing such direct mentoring for various reasons. Some are worried that helping somebody become capable of doing their job will make them irrelevant. Others worry that starting this process of mentoring acts as too loud a signal that they are on their way out. And others are simply incapable of ceding enough control to any other person to allow that person to actually learn anything.

Ultimately most of these reasons for not mentoring and training a successor are rooted in the ego of the person in charge and do more harm than good to the organization. With very few exceptions, organizations tend to do better with gradual change and fewer major disruptions. Even companies that can benefit from wholesale change tend to fare better if the leadership transition itself happens smoothly.

Choosing a possible successor to mentor does not need to be the public and formal process that Phil Jackson suggested. Instead, heads of organizations and departments can start unofficially mentoring people who look like they have the potential to be a future leader or keeping the idea of a successor in mind when making key hiring decisions.

    What is your experience?

    Have you witnessed leaders in your organizations mentoring employees to step up in transitions?

    Does it help the leadership transition process?

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