As soon as you’ve mastered your job, you must start looking for an understudy. The reason for this is clear. Decision makers are going to be less likely to promote you if doing so will create an operational void. By having an understudy who is prepared to take your position, you make yourself a better candidate for promotion.
Choose Your Understudy
Finding the appropriate understudy can be a delicate matter. You should not select your potential replacement too early. If the candidate doesn’t develop properly and fails to demonstrate the skills needed to move into your job, you could have a serious problem.
Changing your mind about a successor you’ve already selected is likely to create all sorts of problems. How you go about preparing for your own replacement is of critical importance. If you already have a team member who is perfectly capable in the job, it’s merely a matter of helping that person develop as thoroughly and as rapidly as possible.
Give the candidate bits and pieces of your job to perform. Under no circumstance should you delegate your entire job to the person and then sit back and read newspapers and business magazines. The company obviously didn’t put you in the position for that purpose.
Allow your understudy to do more and more aspects of your job until he has learned most of it. Make sure the understudy does each section of the job frequently enough that it won’t be forgotten. Occasionally, invite the understudy to participate in the interviewing process when you’re hiring new employees.
Assuming the understudy is performing satisfactorily, start your political campaign for your prospective replacement. Make sure your boss knows how well the person is developing. On performance appraisals, use terms and phrases such as “promotable” and “is developing into an outstanding management prospect.” Of course, never say these things if they’re untrue; that would probably work to the disadvantage of both you and your understudy.
But if the understudy is developing well, communicate it up to the next level without being blatant about it. You run the risk that the understudy might get promoted out from under you. It’s still a risk worth taking. Even if this happens to you several times, you’ll get the reputation of being an outstanding developer of people.
That will add to your own promotability. Besides, you’ll find that developing employees can be a highly satisfying experience. And while you’re worrying about preparing your people for promotion, perhaps your own boss is just as concerned about you and your future.
Using Multiple Understudies
If you don’t have an understudy already in place, you should assign parts of your job to several people and see how they run with the added responsibility and the new opportunity. This is indeed to your advantage, since training several replacements at once makes it unlikely that all the candidates will be promoted out from under you. This in-depth backstopping will serve you well in emergencies.
Don’t be in too big a hurry to move a single candidate into the position of understudy. The moment you name a person as your deputy, others stop striving for the job. That is the trouble with any promotion. Those who don’t get it may stop aspiring to it, which usually has an adverse effect on their performance, even though it may be temporary.
The following management concept may be of value to you:
Always hold something out for your team members to aspire to.
If you get to the point where you have to select a single team member as your heir apparent, then let the other candidates know that opportunities still exist for them in other departments, and that you’ll help them toward their goals of promotion.
As long as you continue to have several prospects vying for the position, however, you must treat them as equals. Rotate the assignments among them. Make sure that all of them are exposed to all aspects of your job. If you’re gone from the office occasionally, take turns putting each of them in charge of the operation. Give them all a chance at managing the personnel aspects of the job, too.
On a regular basis, meet with all the candidates at once and discuss your job with them. Don’t say, “Let’s discuss my job.” Rather, talk about some specific problems they’ve encountered. All of them will benefit from the discussion. If one of them had to face an unusual management problem in your absence, why shouldn’t all of them profit from the experience?