Succession Planning lessons from the bering sea

by Michael on July 15, 2010

“My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead. “

-Walt Whitman

Do all captains of the sea have an innate sense of their own mortality? Do you as a leader? My guess is that those on the Bering sea understand that they won’t be around forever which is why this season has featured a particular emphasis on succession planning. Although their corporations are floating family offices, I think there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the cast and crews featured on the show.

This issue recently surfaced due to the sudden and sad passing of Captain Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie. The interesting coincidence was the time and effort he dedicated this season to grooming his two young boys to take over his ship. No different than any other family business, he was preparing his next generation of leadership. One thing I found most interesting was his idea to send his youngest son off to another boat.

He did this for two primary reasons:

1) To have his son learn how other people run their business. The Captain believed this would sharpen his son’s skills.

2) He wanted his son to appreciate his good fortune of having a ship to take over. He believed his son had become complacent and entitled.  His son happens to be a Gen Y’er so it is obvious why the Captain was having such difficulty!  Would you have the courage to send off your future leaders to another company to acquire new skills and gain fresh perspective? What are you doing to develop your future leaders internally?

On the Northwestern, succession planning has remained a consistent theme discussed from Captain, to leader, to protégé. Captain Sig has been trying to groom his brother for his potential position as Captain and has encouraged his brother to actively transition his skill set to others. His brother, Edgar, currently serves as what corporate America would glean “middle-management.” His peers universally respect him, however, they are ill equipped to handle his responsibilities if/when he takes over the Captain duties of the ship. The potential of him becoming Captain has come to a head because he does not seem interested in the job. This has left Captain Sig in a vulnerable position because he has yet to identify a successor for his job. Just as importantly, Edgar has not been transitioning his skills to the rest of the crew. This leaves the ship in a tough position because if Edgar decides to walk away, as he has hinted at, the ship has yet to identify and train an heir for his job. It wasn’t until recently, at Sig’s urging, that Edgar engaged an eager “deckhand” who wants to run the ship.  And what generation does the “deckhand” come from? It is another GenYer who believes he is qualified and competent, with limited training, to run the ship. Do you have any people at your company who are perhaps over-eager to assume more responsibility?  However, they possess the talent that you know it takes to one day lead your organization. While you appreciate their ambition, what have you done to establish a career path to set up their expectations of what it takes to advance?

Lastly on the Time Bandit there was a unique decision that took place. The ship (company) has always been in the family and Captain John’s son, Scott, is on deck. However, when discussing who was responsible for leading the ship moving forward both Captain John, and his brother Co-Captain, decided that they don’t think Scott is the right guy for the job. Quite simply, they believed he had not learned all of the skills necessary to effectively run their boat. His experience and skills to this point were limited. Thus, they made the difficult decision to promote another, more eager deckhand, who had made it his focus to learn everything there was about the boat. When faced with an emotional decision, about future leadership, they put company first, family second. I applaud them for making that choice. Would you? Interesting note is that once they promoted this deckhand he developed and ego and are now they are concerned with their decision. They made a smart decision by labeling it a “transitionary trial period.” Much like a baby taking an allergy test, you offer them a small sampling to see how they are going to react rather than give them the whole enchillada.

I applaud all of the Captains for understanding the importance of proactive succession planning. The best succession planning is not when you do it when you’re retiring in a week. It’s when you are still committed to an active role in the business. It is a process, not an event. Those that implement a structure for transitioning successors by forecasting future needs, are those who will end up with the best companies moving forward. Get started now! 

Do all captains of the sea have an innate sense of their own mortality? Do you as a leader? My guess is that those on the Bering sea understand that they won’t be around forever which is why this season has featured a particular emphasis on succession planning. Although their corporations are floating family offices, I think there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the cast and crews featured on the show.

This issue recently surfaced due to the sudden and sad passing of Captain Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie. The interesting coincidence was the time and effort he dedicated this season to grooming his two young boys to take over his ship. No different than any other family business, he was preparing his next generation of leadership. One thing I found most interesting was his idea to send his youngest son off to another boat.

He did this for two primary reasons:

1) To have his son learn how other people run their business. The Captain believed this would sharpen his son’s skills.

2) He wanted his son to appreciate his good fortune of having a ship to take over. He believed his son had become complacent and entitled.  His son happens to be a Gen Y’er so it is obvious why the Captain was having such difficulty!  Would you have the courage to send off your future leaders to another company to acquire new skills and gain fresh perspective? What are you doing to develop your future leaders internally?

On the Northwestern, succession planning has remained a consistent theme discussed from Captain, to leader, to protégé. Captain Sig has been trying to groom his brother for his potential position as Captain and has encouraged his brother to actively transition his skill set to others. His brother, Edgar, currently serves as what corporate America would glean “middle-management.” His peers universally respect him, however, they are ill equipped to handle his responsibilities if/when he takes over the Captain duties of the ship. The potential of him becoming Captain has come to a head because he does not seem interested in the job. This has left Captain Sig in a vulnerable position because he has yet to identify a successor for his job. Just as importantly, Edgar has not been transitioning his skills to the rest of the crew. This leaves the ship in a tough position because if Edgar decides to walk away, as he has hinted at, the ship has yet to identify and train an heir for his job. It wasn’t until recently, at Sig’s urging, that Edgar engaged an eager “deckhand” who wants to run the ship.  And what generation does the “deckhand” come from? It is another GenYer who believes he is qualified and competent, with limited training, to run the ship. Do you have any people at your company who are perhaps over-eager to assume more responsibility?  However, they possess the talent that you know it takes to one day lead your organization. While you appreciate their ambition, what have you done to establish a career path to set up their expectations of what it takes to advance?

Lastly on the Time Bandit there was a unique decision that took place. The ship (company) has always been in the family and Captain John’s son, Scott, is on deck. However, when discussing who was responsible for leading the ship moving forward both Captain John, and his brother Co-Captain, decided that they don’t think Scott is the right guy for the job. Quite simply, they believed he had not learned all of the skills necessary to effectively run their boat. His experience and skills to this point were limited. Thus, they made the difficult decision to promote another, more eager deckhand, who had made it his focus to learn everything there was about the boat. When faced with an emotional decision, about future leadership, they put company first, family second. I applaud them for making that choice. Would you? Interesting note is that once they promoted this deckhand he developed and ego and are now they are concerned with their decision. They made a smart decision by labeling it a “transitionary trial period.” Much like a baby taking an allergy test, you offer them a small sampling to see how they are going to react rather than give them the whole enchillada.

I applaud all of the Captains for understanding the importance of proactive succession planning. The best succession planning is not when you do it when you’re retiring in a week. It’s when you are still committed to an active role in the business. It is a process, not an event. Those that implement a structure for transitioning successors by forecasting future needs, are those who will end up with the best companies moving forward. Get started now!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Westin July 17, 2010 at 2:22 am

Michael,

Your narrative is compelling, but if you backed it up with numbers it would be even more impressive. The percentage of closely held private companies in America that properly map out the transition to their next generation of leadership is depressingly low. Foresight and planning are required to ensure that a business provides a stream of income to the owner and his/her descendants into the future. If you bury your head in the sand, forget it.

Keep up the good work,

-Paul

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