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Strategies for agribusinesses managing through succession planning

Learn proven techniques on how to approach the replacement of a legacy employee or leader.

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When we attended NGFA’s 2023 Country Elevator Conference, we asked participants to tell us about their business pain points. Succession planning came up time and again. Specifically, we heard about three specific challenges around succession planning:

  1. How to honor a legacy employee even when they’re no longer performing at the level you need
  2. How to define (or redefine) the incumbent’s role to accurately reflect what you need from a new hire and support the business in the future
  3. How to develop a high-potential employee to step into a key position once an incumbent retires

Here are People Spark's strategies to help you tackle these tricky issues.

Lead with honesty (and kindness) to honor your employee 

... "Our employee isn’t meeting our standards, but we want to honor their decades-long contributions to the company.” ...

Sound familiar? If so, here’s what we suggest. First, change your language. Try consciously replacing “but” with “and.” You’ll realize you can both make necessary changes in the business and recognize and honor this person. By shifting the language, you change the paradigm — and change your perspective.

Now, we know it’s not easy to have a heart-to-heart with an underperforming legacy employee. But before you opt for inaction, imagine how you’d feel knowing your leader was letting you “coast” into retirement, even though it was negatively impacting the business. Not so good…

Instead, imagine the goodness that comes from discussing the future of the business together and figuring out how you and the incumbent could both business goals and personal goals. Better, right?

As you embark on such a candid conversation, use contrasting statements that clarify what your intent is and what it is not. For example:

“My intent is to talk about the future of the business. My intent is NOT to minimize all the work you do and have done.”

Take time to (re)define an incumbent’s role

In many businesses, a legacy role has morphed over time to align with the incumbent’s strengths, priorities, and even personality. That’s why, when retirement is on the horizon, you must look at the big-picture reasons why a role is important and what skills a new hire should have. Focus on what the company needs to be successful, rather than how the incumbent succeeded in their role.

For example, when you’re losing a top salesperson, consider what led to her success. How did she build long-term relationships? What behaviors does she exhibit? A great salesperson is organized, proactive, reliable, knowledgeable, and thoughtful. They’re proud to be part of a highly reputable company. They understand how their contributions help move the company forward and are 100% committed to doing their best.

Spelling out concrete skills and behaviors will help your business accomplish its goals and make the recruitment task manageable—especially when you’re hiring for a job that no one’s thought about in decades. Remember, a well-defined role makes the interview process more effective and is crucial to conducting in-depth interviews.

Go deep in your 1:1s with a potential replacement

Carve out time for meaningful conversations with a potential replacement so you can understand your employee’s priorities, preferences, and goals and also about how well-suited they are for the incumbent’s role. Here are some questions and considerations to keep in mind.

Inquire about the current role:

  • What do you like most and least about your role?
  • How do you define success at work?
  • What are your career goals?

Inquire about the future role:

  • What skills are you currently using that will help you succeed?
  • What areas do you need to develop?

 Explain the job responsibilities:

This is essential if the job will change once the legacy employee retires. Your potential replacement may be thinking about the role based on how it’s been previously defined and handled, and those expectations may no longer be accurate. Provide honest feedback on things like:

  • The employee’s alignment/readiness for the new role
  • The gaps in their current skill set
  • The company’s processes and plans for bridging skills gaps

We hope these tips and strategies help you plan for succession planning and navigate the transition period with ease. Difficult as it may be to lose a long-standing member of the team, there’s a real upside to figuring out what skills and strengths will enable your business to accomplish its current and future goals.  

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