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Succession planning is often thought of as a strategic step limited to leadership positions. So while most companies have executive succession plans in place for their C-suite, many organizations lack a succession plan for their technical employees.
As a result of being technical, employees in these positions provide unique value to the companies they serve and when they depart it can be just as disruptive as when an executive departs.
Despite this, most companies are underprepared for such a departure because technical roles are “unseen” positions — they aren’t considered sexy and resource-worthy, and so a company is acutely unaware of its reliance on technical employees until one of them decides to leave.
When it comes to succession planning, your organization deserves to be as thoughtful about the technical staff as you are about leadership. You need to make a succession plan and prepare for the departure of your technical experts.
To help you get started, here are three examples of technical positions that you may have within your company. These are the unseen leaders which ensure that your organization runs smoothly.
As an increasing number of businesses transition from paper to paperless systems, the role of the digital architect is becoming increasingly important.
This new technical role is crucial, as the digital architect is the individual responsible for analyzing the current state of how a company handles its data and ensuring that data is being managed/transitioned properly.
Your digital architect is an excellent example of an unseen leader — a lynchpin expert that operates behind the scenes, but without which your company processes would be disrupted. This is why your digital architect deserves to have a succession plan in place. If they were to suddenly depart (whether to retirement or poaching) you need to know the tasks they complete and who would take their place.
In contrast to digital architects, which are an up-and-coming position, mainframe engineers represent the recent past. These are highly-technical positions that specialize in maintaining legacy systems.
Despite the growing popularity of the cloud, many of the world’s largest corporations still operate using basement-based mainframe systems. If your company still uses mainframes, how would your systems continue running if your mainframe engineer suddenly left?
There is a shortage of mainframe engineers in the workforce, so you won’t be able to simply run out and hire another person. You need a dedicated knowledge transfer and succession plan in place to ensure that when your engineer eventually leaves, they don’t take their special knowledge with them.
This final entry isn’t a specific position, but rather an example of all the invisible experts that your organization counts on to run smoothly each day. Employees like this are critical, but not traditionally the kind of person that would be seen as “worthy” of a succession plan.
These employees likely don’t have a private office, you don’t interact with them every day, they don’t have regular conversations with the president, but nonetheless, you rely on them.
They could be the employee who sets pricing, reviews contracts, finds deals, designs communication systems, troubleshoots problems with legacy systems, and so on. Invisible leaders take many forms.
Even at a medium-sized company, like The Steve Trautman Co., we have several employees who operate in these invisible leadership positions. If one of them were to leave, their departure would cause a disruption. That is, if we didn’t have a solid knowledge transfer and succession plan in place to help us mitigate the effect of their exit, which we do.
To ensure that the profitability of your organization isn’t disrupted by the sudden departure of a technical employee, we recommend taking the following steps:
For example, blocks of work that other employees are already capable of doing are lower priority. Tasks that are done in an outdated fashion are also a low priority — you don’t want to conduct a knowledge transfer for processes that you plan on retiring soon.
By going through the list of work like this, you’ll be able to identify that sweet spot of work that is incredibly important to the business and is incredibly unique — they’re the only employee who can do it. This is the critical work that you need to prioritize during the upcoming knowledge transfer.
1) Identify other individuals within your organization to whom your technical expert can pass the mantle. These are your apprentices.
Note: you don’t need to swap out one expert with one apprentice. In fact, it’s better to take advantage of this opportunity to mitigate the risk of having a lynchpin expert by diversifying their knowledge across several employees. So instead of having the expert train just one apprentice, consider transferring the knowledge to three or four.
2) Now that you know who your expert is, the knowledge they need to share, and who the apprentices are, you can begin the knowledge transfer. This usually involves structured lessons, where the expert sits down with apprentices and teaches them, block by block, the work that needs to be done.
Don’t think that succession planning is only for executives. It is necessary for all the leaders in your organization — even the silent ones and those without job titles.
The key to a successful knowledge transfer and succession plan is not waiting until your technical employee begins hinting at their departure. Don’t wait until the last minute. You can train apprentices now, with years of wiggle room between now and when your critical employee decides to retire or move on. Doing this will ensure that your company experiences a minimal amount of disruption during the employee’s exit.
Inevitably, your technical experts will leave. When that day comes, are you going to be ready?