Building Successors

Nov. 17, 2015

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals.

Succession planning—that is, replacing yourself or other key leaders or employees when the time comes for an individual’s retirement or transition further up the corporate ladder—is one of the most important managerial duties of equipment professionals, say the experts. One of the most difficult things a company can do is to go outside its own ranks to hire a leader near the top of the chain of command, although there are occasions when it can be done. But, according to James Schug, partner with FMI Corp., “It’s always easier to grow a leader internally.”

Schug works through FMI as an engagement manager for strategy and operational work with elite contractors across the United States.

“I prepare equipment professionals to take the CEM exam,” he says.

Company culture is one reason why an outside hire can be problematic. “One of the most important aspects of a company is its culture,” Schug says. “Going outside for a leader is very difficult. Your best bet is to hire talent and grow them over time.”

He points out that “great companies” recognize the value of succession planning and make room for it. They know that every manager at all levels of the organization should already have identified at least two potential successors, “and have a clear plan on how to engage and develop those successors all the way down the food chain. It is a game changer for the company.” 

Such a strategy is just as much the responsibility of a fleet manager as is making sure inventory levels are right or keeping your fleet utilization rate where it should be. “Being a leader is also developing successors,” Schug says. “That is another key metric to fast-forward the company.”

Growing your own replacement(s) may be the best row to hoe, but it raises some questions. One of these questions is how to cross-train an individual so they can move up when needed and still make sure that person’s present responsibilities are not neglected?

As an answer to this problem, Schug says successor training has to be integrated into everything. “It’s like baking a cake,” he says. “Not only do we need protected time on the schedule at the corporate level, which prioritizes all the other tasks, we need prioritized, protected time for successor planning as well.”

You have to provide time for people to grow, he says, whether that means offering a benchmark program for improvement or forming a so-called “future leaders” group.

“That sends a message across the entire organization that successor planning is important and valuable,” Schug says.

Mike Brennan, CEM, fleet manager of Manatee County Fleet Services in Florida, has seen success in creating a culture within his organization that values successor planning.

“We hire for skills and knowledge surrounding the task; however, we are careful to hire individuals that fit with our culture,” he says.

Brennan speaks to the cake-baking analogy by describing the perfect recipe for identifying a potential candidate to participate in successor training: individuals that have appropriate knowledge and skills, are a good fit with the team and company culture, and possess the personal initiative to grow and learn. One of his most successful strategies for identifying individuals that fit the bill is to ask each and every employee, no matter what role they play in the organization, to contribute to a variety of company challenges, processes and procedures. Those that legitimately and consistently engage and contribute are the individuals who he believes will invest their time and efforts, along with the company’s time and funding, for leadership training and future advancement within the organization.

“A successful fleet manager must not just worry about identifying his/her successor or technician succession. The support staff in parts, administration, fiscal departments, and elsewhere must also be trained and mentored,” Brennan says.

Balancing the individual’s current responsibilities and allowing them enough time to do their work and preparing them to take the boss’ job, so to speak, calls for (of all things) a bit of micromanaging.

“That sounds horrible,” says Schug, “but in a way it makes sense for managers in a corporation to micromanage the time they feel is right for the organization.”

For example, if the task is to perform an equipment inspection, the manager might have the parts clerk help do it. 

“I believe there are enough roles in equipment inspection to do this,” Schug says. “Cross-training has to be experienced.”

Cross-training can also be emphasized during off-peak or nonseasonal times of the year. Brennan directs his technicians to present what they call “toolbox talks” at the beginning of the day once a week. In these talks, technicians share the week’s lessons learned or solutions to common problems everyone faces.

Another option for succession planning is for the manager to develop people through special training. This is critically important. “In other words, we need to micromanage the schedule, not the people,” Schug says.

“The best way is at the metal-meets-the-road level. Simply put,” he says, “involve people in what you (the leader or manager) are doing. Make what you are doing part of cross-training. “

Developmental time is available even to busy leaders, although they may have to think creatively about finding it. For example, on-the-road time, traveling from one job site to the next, or setting up outside meetings may offer opportunities for passing along one’s knowledge to a potential successor. “There are all kinds of time for conversations that, if you do it right, can be very engaging,” Schug says.

Going back to the parts manager example, Schug says, “I want my parts manager to feel that one day he can run the shop. A development assignment would be to organize a management system to help think through the best flow chart to use. Or you can take the parts manager on a supervisor field trip once a week. That lets him see the other side of the picture.”

Another idea Schug points out is identifying a “fantastic technician” who one day could play a leadership role in the organization.

Fleet managers should look at their particular structures, he advises, to attract a younger generation of people.

“They are phenomenal resources. They think, they are more complex, they are very open to breaking the barriers to find new ways of doing things, and they are willing to push the organization. Fleet managers need that type of thinking.

“The point is many companies are changing their processes, or even their structures, to allow more opportunity for leadership development,” Schug says.

For Manatee County fleet technicians, cross-training and leadership development with Brennan’s crew happens when people work together in different areas of the shop or between different facilities. Brennan has observed “this not only ensures that there is always someone to fill voids, but helps you identify those that work well outside of their comfort zone and that enjoy greater responsibility.” Creating a culture within an organization that empowers employees to “call the shots” allows employees to take on greater responsibility.

Another leadership-building structure that Brennan has implemented to attract and retain a younger generation is “cross-generational mentorship.”

“We have a wealth of expertise in some of our longer-term employees that have not only important institutional knowledge, but also unique skills they have developed over the years,” he says. “How do you share that with our new or younger employees?” Brennan has emphasized this approach to training and he sees a two-fold benefit.

“We find a reverse effect also takes place,” he says. “The older technicians are learning about cutting-edge technology and the role it plays on the job from the younger technician. This is a great way to spread knowledge in both directions and provide the training needed to advance here.” 

It is clear there are two sides to the successor planning equation. Identifying potential successors for key positions and preparing specific candidates for specific roles is one side of this equation. The key strategies of succession planning, whereby the equipment-management professional ensures that they have team members ready to step up or step in as needs arise, is the other half of the equation. Both Schug and Brennan emphasize that employee training is a key strategy to accomplishing both.

“As team members grow and prosper, they are invested in,” says Brennan. In-house training, cross-training, online training, face-to-face specialty trainings, and mentorships must be made available to increase skills and abilities. 

Brennan agrees with another key strategy to succession planning that Schug emphasized: the senior leadership must send a message across the entire organization that succession planning is important and valuable.

“We promote people. When there is success, it is honored,” says Brennan. Creating clear and transparent career ladders based on lengths of service and certification milestones is one approach to sending the message. Identifying and encouraging employees to attain awards and certifications available in their field such as AEMP’s Technician of the Year award, AEMP’s professional CEM or CESP credentials, or the EMS certificate can play a helpful role in communicating that message.

“One of my potential successors was identified five years ago,” Brennan says. “It was very important to me that he became a Certified Equipment Manager (CEM) through AEMP right off the bat. This is the most valuable designation for someone in this position to have, due to the fact that this specialized training gives you awareness of all the aspects that go into the fleet manager’s position.” By being exposed to this level of awareness early on, Brennan says that it has given his candidate time to apply what he learned, make adjustments, and be empowered to lead and take over.

AEMP’s CEM and CESP credentials are set up as master-level training programs designed for people who are working as shop managers or lead technicians, or in financial administration offices, or working with equipment management.

“The CEM and CESP study materials and the Career Equipment Fleet Manager Manual are all designed by experienced equipment managers who wanted to share their knowledge and experience in this incredibly challenging field that requires such an extensive set of skills, everything from technical issues of diesel engines to accurate cost-accounting and finance to human resource management,” says Sharon Anderson Young, MBA, AEMP’s Certification Program Manager. “The practical knowledge covered in these materials is truly impressive. The purpose and goal of AEMP’s certification program is to deliver the collective knowledge of our members to the next generation in a form that is practical for busy professionals, as well as to provide meaningful professional credentials that employers will recognize.” As Brennan points out, this material can be useful to organizations searching for ways to support employees’ ongoing development.

“We also have the EMS certificate available for employees who have fewer than five years of experience in equipment management but are still interested in expanding their knowledge and skills now,” says Young. “The entire EMS program is available online, and is considered by AEMP’s Certification Commission to be a valuable preliminary step for potential equipment managers and technicians who may be candidates for leadership. We’ve got these programs available so members can use them now to help train their successors.”

Succession planning is complex and multidimensional. It also happens over time and often in subtle ways if done correctly. Not only must equipment management professionals spend the time identifying the individuals with the desire and potential to lead, but they also must work to create a culture where climbing the ladder is honored. As Brennan, a 37-year veteran of the industry, says, “It is not just about hiring a successor, it is about building a foundation on which your successor can be successful and in turn the organization as a whole can continue to be successful long after you are gone.”