By Lindsey Munson, editor, Plastics Business

“If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted,” are words that resonate with leaders.

This quote stands as a simple reminder and sound advice to those seeking a leadership role or being a “succession” – on-the-job training and sharing processes and procedures are critical components to reaching the next step on the ladder. When an employee makes a leader’s job easier and is disciplined in creating a cohesive environment of on-the-job training and sharing of job responsibilities throughout the team, these actions show that the employee is a continued asset to the leader and the company. In doing so, leadership and executives alike then can begin mapping a promotion or “succession” opportunity for that employee because they know there is a backfill of talent among the department team. Among the next generation of leaders, it is coaching them on mindset and critical thinking as well as sharing knowledge, teaching new skills, networking and training coworkers that opens the door to succession planning success for leaders and executives.

Effective leadership planning is essential to the long-term success of a company and recently, a presentation, “Preparing the Next Generation,” was given at the Association for Rubber Products Manufacturers (ARPM) March 2024 Human Resources Forum that gathered industry leaders who share a common goal – to learn about succession planning and how to engage and build the next generation of leaders. It was presented by Dr. Daniel Walker, director of continual improvement at PolyFlex, part of Nefab Group in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a partner for molded manufacturing automation, product protection and material shipping solutions.

With over 35 years in the industry and currently mapping his succession plan, Walker has the education and experience both personally and professionally to create and execute an effective leadership plan that sets a company up for future success. From a BS in plastics engineering technology and MS in management strategy and leadership to a Ph.D. in business management, as well as his tenure as a teacher, change agent and Six Sigma black belt, these tools have given Walker a platform to guide and support companies through the next stage of their leadership planning.

According to Walker, executives and leadership should map their succession plans to include four key stages: culture and communication, leadership and learning, mentoring and succession transition.

Walker shared, “Starting the succession planning process is important because developing a successor– or depending on the position and job responsibilities, two or more successors – takes time, focus, effort and commitment as a leader and across the entire company.” The end goal of a succession plan for a leader and the company should be that the business continues long after the predecessor hits retirement or transitions into another role professionally. He continued, “It’s finding the right fit in succession to continue building and advancing the success of the company well before the leader’s departure.”

In addition to Walker’s presentation, he highlighted the strategies and structure of succession planning from the book, “Succession Transition” by Bill Hermann and Gordon Krater of Plante Moran, Detroit, Michigan. “Since I am in the beginning phases of my succession planning process, I rely on the guidance from the authors of ‘Succession Transition.’ The authors lay out a systematic process for engaging with, training and mentoring future leaders,”
he said.

Stage 1: Culture and Communication
A company’s most important asset is its employees. Walker said, “It starts with recruiting and retaining the ‘right’ employees. Recruiting employees in the beginning who are selected to be a part of the team is an important and key step to ensure that, as a company, the culture is built from the ground up. This presents leaders with the time needed to develop, train and lead the next generation of employees, aligning the company’s internal structure to its values and mission. It also sets clear and concise communication from top to bottom of the organization.”

In succession planning, two factors play a vital role in the overall process and should be nourished and developed within the company – culture and communication. When a company invests in its people, a foundation is built on positivity, recognition and accountability, which naturally creates open, transparent and honest communication. By fostering a strong culture, a company empowers its leadership and employees – and ultimately, gives insight as to whether a successor lies within the employee base or if the search needs to happen externally. A leader should be equipped to identify a person early on in the succession planning on the basis that the potential successor can step into the role with his/her unique skills, mindset and talent – resulting in augmenting the company before, during and after the “succession” has occurred. Once a successor has been selected, cultural alignment and communication throughout the company are important as the environment serves as a place where the future leader can thrive and grow in professional experiences.

Communication sets the tone within the company; employees thrive when they can freely have a voice, are in the know and feel a part of the company’s day-to-day decisions. Before succession planning and throughout the process, a company and its leadership team should have strong internal and external communication so that when the time comes to make the announcement about a new leader stepping into the predecessor’s position, no one is caught off guard and the map of that position is clearly defined and charted. It exudes a sign of respect and value in the relationship between the leader and successor with clients, customers, partners and employees – speaking to the company’s culture and end goal of long-term sustainability.

In Walker’s succession plan experience, he said, “Company culture has been a significant focus for the last five to 10 years at PolyFlex. We find that if the culture aligns with our values, training succession candidates is much easier. Identifying potential leaders is a process of conversation and observation. If you pay close attention to building up culture, maintaining clear communication lines and nourishing high performers, potential successors naturally emerge.”

Stage 2: Leadership and Learning
“We need to have the courage to explore ourselves as leaders – whether in a leadership role, new employee or future successor. Knowledge is power!” said Walker.

First and foremost, a leader should fine-tune and enhance his/her own “leadership skills” alongside noted high-tier employees to build a pipeline of future leaders. Professionally investing in self-discovery, reflection and/or external coaching is a component in anticipation of starting the succession planning process, placing the right skills in the right place. By reading books, conducting personality tests, attending seminars and workshops (like the ARPM Human Resources Forum) and possibly hiring an outside coach, these active opportunities are ways to develop as a leader but also to assist in better understanding oneself. Walker said, “It’s leading by example and setting the tone of a learning culture within the company.”

In succession planning, there should be an element of continuous learning and training for leadership, future successors and employees by:

  • creating a learning culture and environment;
  • demonstrating learning;
  • encouraging formal (i.e., trade school, college, etc.) and informal learning (i.e.,
  • seminars, workshops, etc.); and
  • creating a safe space to fail.

Key to the progression of learning is the opportunities that open a door to understanding his/her leadership style through self-discovery, including personality profiles (i.e., DISC, Strengthsfinder from Gallup), a personal study and professional counseling outside the company. It’s in asking the question, “Who are you?,” seeking honest feedback through one-on-one conversations, 360° reviews and focusing on introspection – that delivers the result of leadership influence. Walker said, “By conducting a personal study and understanding my leadership behaviors, I adequately can align my view of myself with how others see me, because, as a leader, effective influence is a leader’s top asset.”

To take it one step further, professionals (whether in a leadership role or not) can incorporate a six-month executive coaching series to bring light to unique skills, mindsets and talents, which otherwise would have gone untapped. There is strength in understanding “who you are” as a professional and utilizing new skills or enhancing current skills to work toward the overall goal personally in the job role but also for the company as a whole.

Walker said, “The most valuable lessons learned in life are from failures – and the more significant the failure, the more that is learned. It is a leader’s responsibility to create a space where employees feel safe to fail without negative repercussions to learn from that failure. Through these learned lessons an employee or a future successor is given growth and development opportunities that can’t be found in a textbook or words but an actionable, taught lesson.”

When there’s ownership of the “leadership transformation,” that’s when companies know a succession plan has the bones of a successful and seamless transition to the next generation of leaders. Walker said, “With the learnings from the personality profiles to the six-month coaching experience, I learned that surrounding myself with people who complement my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses transforms me as a stronger leader, giving me the tools to guide my future successor and overall creating a richer company culture.”

Polyflex reinforces the principles of leadership throughout its company and Walker has experienced this first-hand. He said, “As a leader, there is significant power in a company that backs the professional journey and lifelong pursuit of leadership development. For myself, my department and team, and the employees that fill various roles within PolyFlex, it is engrained to not give up on growth whether through formal education, books or learning from one another.” At PolyFlex, employees may join a formal leadership program (i.e., book club) that is based on a five-year trajectory, with many in the company sitting in various stages of learning – it’s in these types of employee investments that leaders rise and next-generation leaders are born.

In line with leadership exploration and learning, a succession plan timeline of all the events – professional exploration, identifying a future leader, mentoring and training, transitioning, etc. – should be set early in the process, because this is when a leader is contemplating and exploring his/her retirement or professional transition. Walker shared, “I am planning on a five- to seven-year process for my successor(s). The timeframe is not so much tied to a calendar but rather the ability of the new leader/successor to learn and develop into the transitioning leadership role.”

Stage 3: Identifying NextGen Successor and Mentoring
No leader or company ever looked back on starting succession planning too early, so the sooner a future successor is identified for the transitioning position the more time is available for relationship building and mentorship. Professional exploration and learning as a leader are at the top of the list, but it is equally, if not more important to mentor and train the successor that will sit in the same seat one day. Especially, if a leader is in a position that may require more than one successor to fill the role’s responsibilities.

To identify future leaders/successors of the company, leadership should take the following into account and actively engage key stakeholders:

  • Inventory skills and unique contributions of employees.
  • Conduct and review team personality profiles.
  • Look at department teams with a critical eye.
  • Seek potential candidates for advancement by looking at behavior, attitude, ambition and skill sets.

Walker said, “It’s in getting to know high-potential leaders in the company that leaders begin to start seeing succession.” Once a leader identifies a successor, it’s time to continue building a high-quality relationship through time, attention, consistency and openness. With that comes “windshield time,” which provides both the leader and successor with opportunities to share good and bad experiences, ask questions, experience real-time learning, issue feedback, etc. – it’s an investment and commitment to the growth of the successor building a present and future foundation for the company.

As a mentor, it is the lasting impact of walking through self-exploration, real-case scenario training, answering questions with patience and listening that will guide, support and ease a future leader. In mentoring a successor, there are various methods a leader can use as tools to form a connection and build a bond but also set him/her up for success in the position, including shadowing, training and coaching. Walker shared, “Once a leader identifies his or her successor, the time has come to begin the mentorship of giving the knowledge and experience by allowing him/her to shadow at business meetings, client visits and all the various activities that come with the role. A successor should take notes, observe the various daily situations and take in the decision-making process.”

He continued sharing, “Windshield time is a beautiful thing! As a leader, you should travel with your successor to get ‘windshield time’ where over two hours you do nothing other than share that time to talk, learn and listen. It’s time that allow the successor to ask questions, take notes to walk through scenarios, etc. Most importantly, this investment in time helps the successor not only understand what you do but also how it is done, and more importantly, the ‘why’ behind your actions as a leader.”

Stage 4: Succession Transition
As a leader and future predecessor alongside the successor, the final piece to implement the succession plan is the transition of leadership. Throughout the succession planning process, a leader early on created and continued to monitor and adjust the transition of the successor based on assessment and progress throughout the timeframe. The transition goal, if a leader is truly committed to the “succession plan” and work behind the process of building a successor, should be a seamless hand-off between leaders and the company with a deliberate focus on cultural engagement and clear communication.

In creating and executing the transition, the successor and leader work closely together throughout the succession timeline by frequently meeting to assess and monitor progress, challenging each other to stretch as leaders and holding each other accountable. “It’s having constant communication and conversations on progress and expressing where you both are in the succession plan. In doing so, it holds the successor accountable for executing the plan alongside the leader and vice versa,” said Walker.

When the day comes and the transition of the leadership role is official, it is the day that the predecessor must step aside knowing he/she is leaving a department and company ready for change. The leader has led and guided the successor through diligent training experiences, mentored and coached with the company and employees at the forefront and finally, created a transition plan that brings positive results to all involved. Walker said, “The predecessor now can step aside physically, emotionally and mentally from the company.”

Walker continued, “At the end of the day, we’re all human!”

As a tenured leader, there are years of hard work, relationships built and passion for the company – it’s never easy to say, “goodbye,” but it is a critical and necessary step to “exit left.” In doing so, this is a positive step forward, showing employees that the new leader is indeed ready to take on the day-to-day operations and responsibilities of the role.

On the contrary, in post-transition, Walker mentioned that succession plan success doesn’t mention to just leave and never look back. Rather, the predecessor should remain available to help ease the new leader into the position. Walker said, “If there’s a special holiday celebration, company picnic, etc., show up! Be present at the special events.”

The Time Is Now
In closing, whether an executive or in a leadership position, now is the time to begin developing a succession plan or finetuning it to meet the expected outcome of the role. The succession planning process takes years and must be met with intention and strategic direction. The next generation of leaders is looming front and center, ready to be trained, coached and mentored to ultimately one day lead the company into future endeavors of smashing goals and successfully meeting or exceeding the bottom line.