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Next Gen Stars: Getting the Next Generation of Talent into the Limelight

By Burkey Belser
August 28, 2013
Next Gen Stars: Getting the Next Generation of Talent into the Limelight

Recently, we’ve had two clients approach us to help promote their next generation of stars. In both cases, the firms have a long history, are well-known and well respected, but have an enormous—and frightening—portion of their business centered around aging stars. These firms have had success transferring the work to the next generation and, in some cases, even the relationships. But the world outside of the firm and their immediate clients is in the dark. In other words, the star power still rests with the senior member of the organization. The talent and good work of the rising generation lies in the shadows.

I cannot help but turn the clock back 30 years when we began working with professional services firms. Although “marketing” was a dirty word and “sales” was Greek to management, the exact same challenge existed. I used to joke that when we began our work, the average age of leadership was around 120 years old. That comment reflected my young age as much as the age of the leaders but, in fact, firm leaders were most often in their 70s. Some were dynamic but all of them practiced in a classical setting drawn more from the past than tilted toward the future.

This challenge occurs in one firm or another every single year.

You may have, in your travels, seen water wheels turning in canals to irrigate crops. Egypt’s are among the most beautiful. A wooden bucket dips into a canal fed by the Nile to rise again full of water which is then upended into a pipe. The bucket quickly dips for another pass in the canal. The water in the pipe makes its way into the field and the dark earth deposited by the Nile’s flooding sends up shoots for next season’s crop. Such is life. Such is the passing of leadership from one generation to the next. If the wheel breaks, the field dries. The crops fail. Even the fertile soil cannot yield the next crop without water.

Today’s leaders are in their 60s, 50s and sometimes even in their 40s. But at some point, the bucket of water must yield to the next for the firm to thrive. What happens in seconds on the banks of the Nile requires a generation in business.

Keep Moving

We’re human. We get comfortable and settled in our success. But senior leaders in a firm have a responsibility to pass the mantle. One leader once told me, “without succession, there is no success.” A neat expression. By the time it occurs to you, senior leader, that you are tired and no longer wish to keep up the pace, the opportunity may have passed. That’s where the organization itself must jump in. Mandatory retirement at 65 is a blunt instrument. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s absolutely stupid without a plan. One might argue that today 70 is a better finish line than 65 but the truth is any finish line without a plan that begins less than five or ten years in advance is bad business. I don’t see Warren Buffett losing his edge, but we all know there is a plan in place. Why? Because plans fail. People quit, refuse to play ball. Or the “chosen one” isn’t as qualified as you’d hoped. Warren Buffett is numero uno case in point.

You Know Who They Are

Tomorrow’s stars are obvious to those who will simply look and listen. That means little in firms where politics trump good sense. Sometimes the very, very good are overlooked for the wrong reasons. But often enough, losers are marginalized by the business when firm culture asserts itself in its proper role of weeding out incongruent players. A leader’s role, after all, is in no small part to filter out discordant tones. In a perfect world, the next leader simply steps up to the plate, bat in hand. When those leaders are identified, then there is a role for marketing.

Blast Furnace

“In a blast furnace, fuel, ore, and flux (limestone) are continuously supplied through the top of the furnace, while air (sometimes with oxygen enrichment) is blown into the lower section of the furnace, so that the chemical reactions take place throughout the furnace as the material moves downward.” (Wikipedia)

Hold that thought. Ore is talent. Hot air is… well, hot air. You can argue all you want, but hot air can create a chemical reaction that leads to cast iron. I’ll even allow that marketing, for the moment, be allied with “hot air” if the result is eventually steel.

Are you with me? Firms must start to market their next generation of talent if they expect to avoid slag and make steel. Or if they expect rich loam to bear fruit.

Strategies to Make Steel or Raise Crops

Without a water wheel, the next generation will not thrive. Without a blast furnace, the next generation will not build a reputation in the minds of buyers. Succession wants discipline, an integrated strategy and funding. If you believe your efforts are bearing fruit, continue watering. If you believe the results of your efforts are weak, call the blast furnace. 202.775.0333. Sometimes the issue is important enough to seek a solution.