Grow Wisdom, Organically

Succession planning is a perennial concern in the ranks of executives, and rightly so. The wave of boomers retiring was slowed by the seven-year downturn, but we have now emerged from the great recession. Though many people have not fully recovered, the reprieve can’t last forever.

Succession Planning = Growing Wisdom

The purpose of succession planning is to nurture wisdom so future leaders, at all levels, will be competent to make good decisions. Now that information is ubiquitous (and overwhelming), knowledge is not THE differentiator for effective decision-making that it once was. Today, we need wise people who define problems cogently, work collaboratively, and find creative solutions.

That begs the question, how do we “grow” wise, creative, collaborative people? Is there a program for that?

Yes. There are many, but none can replace the “real thing.”

Organic Growth

Formal programs are often poor institutional replacements for organic relationships and processes. Sure, mentoring programs, annual nine-box reviews, and competency-based training programs are beneficial. In fact, I make my living helping clients with these very programs, but they are only supplements to the natural and organic dynamics of teams.  Supplements do very little when the soil itself is depleted.

Wisdom is learned most effectively from organic processes like:

  • Experience Solving Problems – including successes and failures,
  • Story Telling – hearing tales of yore from the elders,
  • Imagining – dreaming up ideas for what might work,
  • Reflection – personally and in teams, and
  • it is increased exponentially from feedback.

But who has time for story-telling, imagination, and reflection? Todays’ technology-infused marketplace requires pragmatism and fast action. Without continual learning, however, action solves yesterday’s problems, and people quickly grow obsolete.

Sustainable success requires business processes designed for action and learning.


What if your work methods were co-generational? What if work processes could create and distribute both “product” and wisdom? It is not only possible; it is a reality for many companies. Here are six ways to make it your reality:

1. Design Jobs for Teams
Many jobs provide liberal amounts of autonomy, which, not coincidentally, is highly prized by Gen Xers. There is much to be said about the motivational power of autonomy, but it can also hinder the learning that comes from diversity. The power of autonomy is the amount of input and control released to people. Instead of releasing control to individuals, release control to teams. Then, require them to make decisions together. For example, you could make the team unit rather than the individual responsible and accountable for sales, delivery, and service. To ensure it sticks, reward performance based on both individual and team results.

2. Multi-level Working Teams
With all the talk about diversity, I don’t iStock_000024087384Smallhear much discussion of experience as an important facet of diversity. If you want “junior” people to learn, they have to be in on the action where they get experience and can rub elbows with the experts. Novices learn by exchanging ideas with more experienced people while they work – not by being told what to do or by watching from afar.

3. Player Coaches
First-line supervisors are commonly working supervisors. It is less common for mid and senior-level leaders to sit down and think-through problems with staff. While often rusty in technical matters, experienced leaders have perspective, problem-solving approaches, and social awareness. In other words, they have wisdom, and it’s their responsibility to share it. Leaders can be player coaches by joining teams as working members, conducting round-table discussions, participating in training program, and teaching leadership courses.

4. Safe Team Meetings
Meetings are like liver. Hardly anyone likes them, but they contain essential minerals. Just like liver, if you don’t prepare well and tend to the climate, meetings leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Meetings should be a safe place for communicating and solving work problems. Take team meetings seriously: meet regularly, prepare, bring problems to the forefront, enforce the ground rules, and listen.

5. Dialogue without Decision
This is a serious discussion of issues with the intent to explore and understand that is separate from decision-making and action planning. For many people, the urge to decide and act is compelling; anything else feels like a waste of time. Engaging in Dialogue without Decision is a deliberate business process that recognizes learning, knowledge, and wisdom as valuable inputs and outputs of work. When you conduct Dialogue without Decision Meetings, you help establish learning, listening, and critical thinking as core company values.

6. Post-mortem Sessions
Debriefs, post-action reviews and post-mortem sessions are “common” among best-in-class companies. But their value depends largely upon how you conduct them. To get maximum learning from these sessions, focus the conversation on “what we noticed” and “how we interpreted it” rather than “what we did.” This will uncover and test the veracity of your guiding theories. The learning that results will improve the speed and quality of future decisions.

Go Organic

Succession Planning will remain a perennial concern as long as executives rely on programs like knowledge management systems, succession planning, and leadership training as their main developmental tools. Leaders will find they get better results using co-generational work processes, which derive learning from the work experience and from social interactions that encourage story-telling, imagining, and reflection. You may believe that you can’t afford such fanciful whims, but that is just your imagination.