As I embark on my first article as a member of The Rawls Group, I figured I might as well throw myself into the deep end and entertain a topic that is undoubtedly surrounded by controversy: religion. The recent changes occurring in the leadership of the Catholic Church have not only fascinated me, but have also led me to ponder how such a significant change to this steadfast organization will affect the group as a whole. And I am not simply talking about those directly involved in the selection of the next leader of the Catholic Church; I’m also referring to the millions of citizens around the world that look to the Pope for guidance, purpose and support. 

Some of you may be wondering how I can correlate the Catholic Church to succession planning, but the mind works in mysterious ways, and I simply ask you to follow me on this brief but important journey. 

Pope Benedict’s decision to step down as leader of the Catholic Church (due to health reasons) will be followed by his appointment as Pope Emeritus. In this role, which has not been used since the 1400s, the former Pope will live out the remainder of his years on the Vatican grounds. I have full faith in the transition and direction the Church will be moving toward, but as a succession planner, the process has caused me to think about how our clients and prospective clients deal with similar transitions. 

The Catholic Church may be one of the best case studies for succession planning as the organization has been around for nearly 2,000 years and has had 265 different leaders (soon to be 266) since its inception. When you think about it, the Pope’s role is very similar to that of a successful business owner who: 

  • Leads an organization for many years, if not decades garnering respect, loyalty, and admiration. 

  • Is responsible for communicating a unified vision and mission to their employees. 

  • Tends to be the driving force and backbone of the overall direction of the organization. 

When there is a transition in this leadership position (whether by choice or dictated by life circumstances), uncertainty is bound to follow. As succession planners, we work through this subject on a daily basis. What happens when the owner, dealer, or benefactor can no longer lead the organization? Whether the owner’s exit is due to health reasons, a desire to see the open skies, burnout, or it just being “the right time”, change is coming and the organization needs to be prepared. 

 The choice of the next leader will dictate the success of the organization going forward. Effective leaders, the kind that truly create the lasting organizations we see as successes today, are most times not chosen but built and developed. It takes a great effort to dig into the trenches with those around you to earn (not demand) the respect a leader needs to continue a successful business. In the same way, a successor needs time and shared experiences with his compatriots. He needs the seasoning of the highs and lows associated with the industry. A leader becomes a true leader not by being named “successor” and assuming the title, but by trekking through the ranks and allowing those around him to see how he responds to the ups and downs. 

Having capable and experienced successors is one of the Church’s best qualities when it comes to their succession planning. The papal successor historically is a Cardinal from the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals. To become a Cardinal, a man has to first be a Catholic priest, then nominated and appointed as a bishop, and then must be selected by the current Pope to become a Cardinal. By using this process, the Church essentially creates a prequalified pool of potential successors. The Church should be commended for creating a large group of qualified and distinguished leaders to choose from. In our succession planning practice, we like to call these business leaders who have the talent, ambition, focus and integrity to lead the organization in the right direction Very Special Key Employees, or VSKEs. 

Business owners would be wise to learn from the Church, to create a strong “bench” of leaders who can potentially lead their business into the future. The successful owners of today, who fought for years with blood, sweat and tears, and did not demand but earned the respect of their peers should consider the following questions when looking to add members to their “bench”. 

  • Will this company succeed without the same exact form of leadership I had? 
  • How can I replicate this leadership model? 
  • Where will I find the next leader to take my place? 
  • How do I prepare the next generation to take over this company? 
  • How do I prepare myself for this transition? 
  • Will I ever be able to really let go? 

These are all valid questions that business owners need to answer. The now-former Pope has clearly answered that last question as he has given his resignation and asked for and pledged “unconditional obedience” to whoever is selected to lead the Church. Whether a business owner chooses to answer these questions or ignore them, the fact that the owner cannot lead the business forever still remains. The best course of action, as with most things, is proper planning. Identify who the organization’s VSKEs are, provide them the opportunity to learn, gain experience, and lead, and you will be left with the confidence that in your absence your company will continue to thrive.

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