Passing the Baton

The art of succession planning.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

William Perugini/Shutterstock
Source: William Perugini/Shutterstock

When I was 60, I put a paragraph on the corkboard next to my desk. It urged succession planning.

Two days ago, I turned 70, reread it, and decided that although I’m in good health, it was time to find and train someone who might end up taking over my practice or at least use what I've learned if they go off on their own.

In hopes it might be instructive to you as you plan your succession, here’s what I’m doing:

Deciding what’s important in my replacement

My first impulse was to recruit a young career counselor. But I rejected that, in part because the best counsel I've received has not been from counselors but from brilliant, emotionally intelligent people in a range of professions, from a recovering lawyer who is now a product VP for a mental health app to a retired professor of medicine. I decided that career advising's specifics could be taught, but intelligence—cognitive and emotional—would be more difficult to develop. That comports with Google head of HR Laszlo Bock’s hiring principles: hire for intelligence and drive more than for experience.

I also looked honestly at myself and accepted that I lack a poker face, occasionally showing frustration in a sigh or a tightened face. So I decided that the person needs to be calm and open to constructive criticism.

Finding my replacement

Today, I emailed eight people I respect, asking for a referral. Plus, to help ensure that I consider a broad-enough pool, I paid for an email blast to the subscribers of a small, local publication that publishes intelligent, kind articles. The email reads:

I’m a well-known career advisor, been at it for 35 years and still love it, but having just turned 70, despite being in good health, I feel the responsible thing to do is to share what I’ve learned over all these years with an intern/apprentice so my years of experience don't get buried with me– hopefully a decade or two from now. Perhaps this person will end up taking over my practice or more likely, just use the expertise when going off to be a career advisor on their own. (I want to make clear that I consider it unethical to expect indentured servitude.)

You can most fair-mindedly learn about me by Googling me.

I do not require you to have been a counselor of any sort. Rather, my key selection criteria will be intelligence, responsibility, likeability, and the ability to motivate people to take action rather than procrastinate.

If you or someone you know might be interested, that person should email me a letter of interest:, including a phone number and best times to contact.

For each person who passes the paper screening, I’ll conduct the interview—just one interview. When employers make candidates endure a series of interviews, it’s not only unfair to candidates but unnecessarily uses employee time.

If COVID restrictions don't preclude it, we’ll sit at my kitchen table and I’ll offer coffee or tea plus a warm pastry. I’ll start with an important softball: “After a conversation, I sometimes find myself thinking, 'Ooh, I wish I had said that.' So, to avoid that, is there something you want to make sure you tell me?”

Next, I’ll ask questions that follow up on their letter of introduction, especially probing accomplishments they mentioned so I can get a clearer sense of whether s/he meets the aforementioned hiring criteria.

Finally, with each candidate, I’ll role-play two situations commonly faced in career advising: a client who says s/he’s not passionate about anything, and a client who procrastinates a lot. Of course, I don’t expect the candidate to perform expertly, but the role-play will help me sense their potential.

I’ll ask the #1 candidate to provide three references. Because most references are reluctant to say anything negative, I’ll email them:

I’m hiring for an important position: someone I'd train, who, if things work out will take over my career advising practice. I’m not necessarily looking for someone with counseling experience. What’s important is (insert the hiring criteria.) I’m considering (insert candidate’s name). If you think s/he’d be excellent, I’d love a call. If not, no need to call. My phone number is (insert.) Thank you so much for considering this.

I’d be reassured about the candidate if I got a callback (of course, a positive one) from two of the three references.

Training my replacement

Again, as long as COVID restrictions permit it, I’ll sit down with the person I've selected at said kitchen table and ask if s/he’d like to begin by asking me questions. After those were addressed, I’d ask the person to walk back to the front door and pretend s/he's a new client. I’d then simulate what I do with the prototypical new client from beginning through the end of the session.

Then I’ll answer any questions, invite the person to ask or email me further questions, as well as to watch real sessions (with client permission of course) as well as how I handle payment and other aspects of running a private practice.

If COVID restrictions preclude that, of course, I’ll do all that virtually.

The takeaway

It is difficult for all of us, including me, to face the truth that we all fade. But carefully planning for succession boosts our ripple effect, even after we’re gone.

I read this aloud on YouTube.