19 Aug 2021 23:37 IST

Preparing an organisation for a future without you

The real success of leadership lies in building future-fit leaders

The news and WhatsApp forwards are full of terrifying videos from Afghanistan of ordinary citizens attempting to flee their country. The horrors of the Taliban’s last reign are so vivid in people’s minds that they feel their best chance at not just a livelihood but at living itself, is to get out now — even if they die trying. It is a stunning indictment of the collective leadership failure of at least four US Presidents, the political and military leadership of both Afghanistan and the US and the Soviet Union before them.

The US stayed 20 years, spent over $2 trillion, and yet chaos descended a few weeks after they left. It gives us pause to reflect on one of leadership’s most important metrics of success — what happens when you’re not there.

Leaders often pride themselves on the achievements and milestones of their leadership tenures — what happens when they are there — but the real test of their leadership is whether they have prepared their organisation and teams for a future without them. This is not automatic — it needs leaders to invest thought, focus, and energy on making this happen.

Building leadership

The biggest part of the formula is building leadership capability. This applies whether you are a CEO, a division head, or even a team leader. The moment we take over a team, a big part of our task is looking for and building the capabilities for the team to keep performing, keep growing, and keep leading themselves, without us. A leader who mistakenly takes the “Without you, we could never have achieved this” type of compliment as a sign of leadership success is reading it wrong. It is a sign that the team and its results have not grown beyond him.

The secure leader’s golden moments are when the team performs inspite of her not being there. She revels in their success, she celebrates their confidence, she nudges them to take on even bigger challenges. She’s available to coach, to support, to take the fire when it’s there, but her goal is for the team to climb without her.

As Aditya Puri, former CEO at HDFC Bank, said in an interview to McKinsey, during the leadership transition, "You also have to empower employees. That’s where most people make a mistake. They say, 'I’ve delegated,' but they don’t empower, because they always feel that they can do the job better than everybody else. You probably can. But look at the price you pay. And look at the demotivation you have because you are always saying, 'I can do it better than him.' Then he doesn’t feel he’s achieved a thing. When you empower people, you don’t realise how much motivation you give them. Yes, they will make some mistakes. You should have the shoulders to accept those mistakes, and tell them, 'Never mind. You learned. That’s good enough'." That is the kind of thinking and belief system required to build leadership for the beyond-you time.

Building capability for the future

A mistake many leaders make when planning succession is looking for clones of themselves. In our VUCA world this is a recipe for disaster. A leadership style that worked brilliantly for a given set of challenges and opportunities could be totally ill-suited to the new challenges and opportunities that the future will bring. So, a great leader needs to read the tea leaves right. She must look at what the future needs and search for and develop the leaders and skills that will best be able to handle and harness that future.

When Sam Palmisano came in as IBM’s new CEO years ago, he sold IBM’s hardware division to Lenovo, literally giving away the family treasure. Leaders before him who excelled at building IBM’s hardware dominance would have been unable to ask the questions he did and look around the corner as he did. With HDFC’s leadership transition, Aditya Puri, after a universally acclaimed 26-year stint at the top, handed the baton over to Sashi Jagdishan.

While the new CEO will explore all the ways he can build on what Aditya Puri did, he will also need to be different from him. He’s competing not with the ICICIs and SBIs of banking but with the slew of Neo-banks that are giving customers the complete banking experience from the 6 by 2.5 square inches of their mobile devices. The skills required are different, the customer engagement experience is different, the back-end engine must be different, the metrics must be different. The new leadership capability must therefore be future-fit. The kind of leadership skills that Jeff Bezos used to kickstart Amazon will be very different from the kind of skills and leadership style his successor Andy Jassy will need, to grow Amazon and sustain success.

Look at Puri’s approach, where he specifically brought in senior leaders from outside the industry: “I saw that we needed expertise that was missing from our arsenal. The whole game for marketing and sales has changed…we needed digital marketing talent. We needed people who understood campaign management — people who understand that you don’t tally results at the end of the month. You should know every two hours." That is a deliberate strategy of preparing for the future. As James Baldwin would say: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in people.” The leader should choose and prepare her team’s capabilities to break free from those past histories, so they can create their own.

Building from the beginning

The US strategy in Afghanistan almost completely ignored the future they aspired for when they left — a politically secure, democratic, and vibrant Afghanistan. They paid little attention to the tiger they knew was in the cage — preferring to ignore it or placate it, rather than eliminate the risks it posed. They nurtured political and military leaders who preferred to feather their own nests, without engaging or empowering the rungs in the ladder below them. The American leadership strategy did not include anticipating, searching for, and developing the capabilities needed for a post-US Afghanistan. It was what they should have been thinking about and acting on from the day they landed.

Preparing the organisation for a future without you is your job. It is not HR’s job, nor just the Board’s or your boss’. It is something each of us whatever our leadership role is — has to own and take responsibility for. The former and current Chairpersons of Mastercard wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review earlier this year on CEO succession. Richard Haythornwaite and Ajay Banga wrote about their first meeting when Banga was being vetted for the CEO role: "The imminent CEO succession was our focus, of course, but — believe it or not — we also discussed the next one: Before Ajay even had the job, we were imagining his replacement and both expressing determination that we should not have to hire from outside the next time around.”

Think about that — the next CEO succession was an important part of the current CEO’s hiring process!

As Aditya Puri said in the same McKinsey interview, “Every month, I was handing over more to Sashi. When my last day came, it was like handing over a set of keys. So, you have to manage a transition in extreme detail, and with a clear understanding that your real success is to leave behind an organisation that functions without you.” Good managers are indispensable but great leaders make themselves dispensable.