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Assignee, Successor, or Steward - What's Your Role and How to Succeed?

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in the news of late, it got me thinking about a key question that all new leaders must face. In addition to accurately assessing the business situation, new leaders also must figure out whether their role is to be assignees, stewards, or successors. Choosing incorrectly has significant impact in terms of how performance will be evaluated. This article will help new leaders identify which of these roles to lean into and how to achieve success depending on the role selected.

What is leadership succession?

Succession occurs when a prospective candidate is chosen and especially groomed for a role of increasing authority usually by the leader who is vacating the role. Successors enjoy in-depth knowledge about the business dynamics and usually have a leg up when it comes to understanding what's working well and what's not, as well as the acute and chronic issues that need to be addressed. Successors have the opportunity, therefore, to push innovation and performance further, faster, but also have high pressure to deliver on transformation initiatives.

The passing of the crown in a monarchy is a fitting example of leadership succession. King Charles III was groomed for decades to assume the throne. He knows the ins and outs of the role as well as the issues and opportunities that he will be tasked with addressing. Therefore, he can move swiftly and confidently in structuring his new regime and has a true advantage when it comes to advancing the reputation and prestige of the royal family.

The learning curve for successors is flattened which is why the growth expectation is usually much steeper. Successors also usually enjoy greater autonomy sooner, and as such can put their stamp on their new team and business in a more meaningful way. But beware, many companies call all new management hires - successors - whether they have prepared these incoming leaders for the success part of the work or not. We can call this false succession process "assignment" - as in being plucked from one area and dropped into unfamiliar territory with orders to lead.

What is leadership assignment?

Most times, companies don't especially groom and prepare new leaders for success. Instead, they opt for the far more perilous process of assigning individuals to leadership roles. To be assigned means being assessed via some sort of performance criteria and deemed to have the mandatory minimum capabilities to succeed in a higher leadership capacity. Assignees must prove their worth all while learning their business situation, people, and processes. These roles tend to be sink or swim opportunities where success can lead to great reward, but failure can end careers.

Assignment is attractive for companies operating in traditional management hierarchies. This is because they actively want to weed out leaders who cannot meet muster so that the future leadership hierarchy is clarified. Due to this desire, assignees are usually given less autonomy but significant pressure to perform. Without coaching or incremental support from the organization, many assignees are consigned to mediocrity or outright failure due to the lack of a firm foundation.

I was assigned to most of my leadership positions in my career. From being tasked with leading a regional Classic Brands marketing division in the Middle East to being selected as a General Manager in Indonesia and Brazil, I went into these roles with the odds of success stacked against me. What always makes a difference for leadership assignees is the quality of support they receive from their direct line managers. I was fortunate in most cases to have exceptional support which is why I was able to ultimately succeed. Where I experienced the most failure - it is no surprise that I also received the least consistency and continuity of management support.

What is leadership stewardship?

Leadership stewards are successors or assignees with a specific mandate not to change the status quo. Leaders are selected based on their measured approach, steadfastness, and political savvy. As the primary requirement for success for stewards is the degree to which they don't mess with success, they often experience the least pressure to continuously adapt and change with the times. Their role is business continuity, plain and simple.

Stewardship is often a requirement for slower moving businesses or more risk averse environments. Surprisingly, though, it also occurs frequently in the start-up space when founders are replaced by "steady hands" tasked with managing growth and enhancing rigor and structure. It's kind of an oxymoron when fast moving, rapidly growing businesses are headed by leaders who are averse to change - but it has happened repeatedly, such as when Steve Jobs was replaced in the late 1980's or when the leadership at Uber was sacked in 2015.

This is a highly circumstantial leadership post, most successful when companies need a cooling-off period. Leaders who accept the role of steward understand that maintaining reputation and minimizing business disruption are the primary goals. Multi-directional communication, discipline, and management rigor are the principal capabilities required for success. Interestingly, successors can often morph into stewards over time if left in a role for extended periods. They come in the door hot but entropy and organizational appetite for continuous change and adaptation falls out of favor, replaced by the need for greater stability.

How to know which role you are in and how to succeed?

Unfortunately, many companies are unclear about what they want and therefore utilize the wrong process for the wrong business situations, which forces the new leader to figure out their role on their own and then make the necessary adaptations. As such, here are some quick tips leaders can utilize to assess which role is required and how to proceed from there to make the most of your tenure.

  1. Succession equals speed: When a leader comes into a role with a mandate to rapidly address the business situation, whether they were groomed for the role or not - they are in the position of successor. As such, the key relationship is with the predecessor. Engaging them and extracting as much knowledge as soon as possible is crucial to avoid missteps. If the prior leader is not accessible or lacks engagement, then it is incumbent on the successor to negotiate more time to gain greater business understanding prior to taking decisive action that could have dire future consequences.

  2. Assignment equals development: Leaders who enter a role with some but not all the capabilities needed for success need to understand that their development is the crucial step. Regardless of the business situation or expectation, they must take their time to deepen their toolbox and confidence. Empirical creativity is the crucial process here - not rushing to scale initiatives without straightforward evidence that the solution has a high probability of success. Their goal is to demonstrate continued improvement over the length of their assignment and not fall into the trap of overreacting to external pressures. They also must not be afraid to ask for help.

  3. Stewardship equals stability: Leaders who have never experienced the succession or assignment roles make for terrible stewards. They lack the experience that comes from developing on the job and moving fast and breaking things. This leads to insecurity, passiveness, and indecision in a business that requires resilience, assertiveness, and confidence. It takes a lot of gravitas to stand strong amid unending change. Stewards need to be known quantities who are unconcerned about their next position or upward mobility - they love what they do, do it well, and possess the hallmark of consistency which increases stability.

As previously mentioned, when leaders are mismatched for the business situation they are in or for the expectations placed on them, the result is often disastrous. Using these simple definitions can help leaders accurately assess their role and request the relevant support to thrive.

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