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Succession Planning in Football and in Business


This past weekend we saw the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles win their championship match ups and advance to the Super Bowl. Of course, there are many stories that can be constructed from such a momentous occasion, but I want to focus on a specific subject that affected both these teams this week. Succession planning.

According to Wikipedia, “Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing new leaders who can replace old leaders when they leave, retire or die.” Note: I was going to re-word the definition, as it is a little morbid at the end, but decided to keep its integrity intact. Anyway…

The reason succession planning is so important for football teams is because if the quarterback leaves, gets injured or retires, the team is left with a hole, both in talent and in leadership. It is important that the organization has a plan so that they are not left vulnerable in the event of an unlikely departure.

The most recent example of successful succession planning was when the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rogers to eventually replace Brett Favre. Rodgers was a highly regarded college player that Green Bay deliberately chose as Favre’s successor. Through three years he was Favre’s backup and learned the things he needed to eventually take on the reigns. Two years after he did Green Bay was a Super Bowl Champion again. It pays to have a succession plan.  

Green Bay’s example is one of traditional succession planning. You have to be prepared in cases when things don’t go as planned. Like this year’s Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles had a great season under their QB Carson Wentz and their fan base almost gave up hope when he got injured three games before the playoffs started. He had to be replaced by his backup Nick Foles. The good news is that Philadelphia understood the need to have a quality backup in place, which is why they retained Foles on their roster. He was able to learn the same exact plays and formations Wentz and was put in a position to come in comfortably when his number was called. It was not enough to just be the backup, Nick had to practice as if he was the incumbent, no matter how well Wentz was playing. Having someone that can take over is critical not only for succession planning, but for bench strength.

The New England Patriots also had a succession plan. His name was Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy was drafted with the intent of eventually replacing Tom Brady. He started following in Brady’s footsteps and became a trusted figure in the locker room. Due to the fact that Garoppolo would be a free agent after this season, the Patriots decided to trade him to the San Francisco 49rs given that Brady was still playing at such a high level. This allowed them to get some compensation (a 2nd round pick) instead of having to pay a premium for Garoppolo to be a backup. Now the interesting part of the Patriots story is that Tom Brady got injured right before the AFC Championship game. He cut his hand in practice which led to some uncertainty on whether he could play. Fans in New England were freaking out because they just traded the guy that was supposed to be there in moments just like this… now they could have their Super Bowl hopes in the hand of a 32 year old journey man who they just signed a month ago. This is a great example on how not having a succession plan can put your organization at risk. Good thing Brady played.

Now what does this mean for business. The importance of succession planning for business is twofold. One, it allows you to have someone that has been groomed to step in when needed. This allows for more flexibility in the work environment to shuffle projects and responsibilities. Two, it allows the company to be prepared in the event that someone leaves and needs a capable replacement. Having a succession plan allows for less uncertainly as unforeseen changes occur.

What people fail to mention is that succession planning also has an advantage for the person being replaced. Unlike football, where there can be only one quarterback, it is unlikely that training someone to do your job will lead to you being fired and replaced by the person you trained (it could happen, but by my experience it is unlikely). What succession planning can do for you is allow you to have someone that will take on some, or all of your responsibilities, which will allow you to explore available opportunities.

Think of it like this. If you are looking to move to a different department to diversify your career, your chances of being able to do so increase if your current manager knows that there can be someone that can step in your shoes without affecting the business. There is no hesitation. Furthermore, your team will love that you are giving them additional responsibilities that will allow them to grow and develop their careers. It is a win-win.

When I was the Marketing Team Lead for a Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) account I quickly made sure that the people on my team were trained to perform the same functions I did. This allowed for more flexibility for me (I did not stress out when I was on vacation, or when I had to stay home with a sick kid) and it also allowed for my team to develop. Eventually, our organization landed a big retail account and I was chosen to onboard it. My leaders knew they could promote someone from my team to the lead of the QSR account. The only reason I was able to get this opportunity was because I had the succession plan in place.

So, as you are planning to reach your own Super Bowl, think about what you need to do to ensure that your team will be taken care of if and when you leave. You might end up taking over as head coach, and who better to have at the helm of your team than someone you personally trained for this moment…

Andre Mello is a Business Coach and an avid NFL fan. He has been in marketing and leadership for over 17 years. To connect with Andre please visit www.wysecoaching.com

Andre Mello