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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #60: Leader Challenge: Building Bench Strength

October 22, 2019
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #60: Leader Challenge: Building Bench Strength

Having a “strong bench” means having a succession plan for yourself and your team members. As the coach of your team, in the event of an injury, do you know who will fill in for that player? In Episode #60 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, Chris and Perry examine the importance of building “bench strength.”

To cultivate leadership development on your team, consider bringing a 5 Levels of Leadership Workshop to your organization this year.

Read Transcript Below:

Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach, and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President with the John Maxwell Company. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As a reminder, if you would like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps bring one of us in for a 5 Levels private workshop for your organization, we would love to do that. Please go to, and you can leave a comment or a question for Perry and me on that site. We would love to hear from you. Well, today’s topic is “A Leader’s Challenge: Building Bench Strength.” Talk to me, Perry.

I recently went on a coaching call and there was a leader that I was coaching. She felt like she had all her eggs in one basket, and I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I had a key player on the team go out with a severe illness. And I looked to the bench, and everybody was consumed. I ended up having to pick up a lot of the workload.” She said she realized how exposed her business was because she hadn’t thought through a succession plan or “bench plan,” as we call it. You’ve got to have bench brain. All sports coaches think about this.

I love today’s topic. It’s really relevant to the 5 Levels of Leadership. Here we’re talking about Level 4. John talks about “The Law of the Lid.” You really see a lid in between Levels 3 and 4, right? Number 4 is all about the reproduction of yourself and developing leaders on your team. If you want to build a sustainable culture, a sustainable organization, then you’ve got to focus on developing your bench. It is more sustainable for an organization to develop the people already on your team than to hire outsiders. I’ve seen disasters happen again and again.

A sports-related example is these power 5 college football teams. I can speak to this because my son’s currently playing football at the University of Georgia, and I’m seeing this lived out right now. UGA is notorious for bringing in a recruiting class with a couple of 5-star players and a couple of 4-stars. Then, all of a sudden, here comes the next recruiting class with the same positions—another 5-star and another 4-star come in. They were honest with my son. They said, “You need to understand that the day after signing day, I’m going to begin recruiting your replacement.” It’s a pipeline for them. You can think about this from a sales perspective. Our sales talent is the exact same thing. When somebody goes down in a certain position on UGA’s football team, does the coach stand around going, “Hmm, alright, do I need to find someone new to play that?” No, because he already has that next 4-star or 3-star player ready to go. And they have to be able to step in there and keep up with what’s going on. So, those decisions for the development and sustainability of your organization have to be made before it’s too late. Back-ups have to be sitting there, ready.

There’s four things a leader can do to build bench strength without having to hire additional head count. But first, I’ve got a flashback I’d like to share. My son was trying to own a part of a business. He told the senior leaders, “I think I’m ready.” The senior leader goes, “You’re absolutely ready. Who’s your back fill?” And my son said, “That’s your job!” And the guy said, “That’s not my job. That’s the leader’s job.” I love it. So, now I’ve been asking every leader I speak with, “How are you back-filling yourself, and how are you looking at your succession plan for each of the roles on your team?” So, my son had to go back and backfill himself. It cost him six months, but he did it. Now he’s on his way. But it was a great lesson for him at his age.

So, one way I’ve seen leaders do this is what I call “let them drive.” I find many leaders don’t allow their teams to really do their job. These leaders are so plugged in to doing their jobs with them that they’re stepping in so much that their team is stepping back. I’m a big believer that, if a leader is not there so much, the team should still be able to operate. Would your team come to a halt if you weren’t constantly present? You want to be able to think, “I can step back and let them drive.” Think about where they get help. How do they solve problems? Am I trying to be a genius maker? We’ve talked about that several times. Am I rescuing them? Am I protecting them? Am I the one with all the big ideas?

You need to let them drive. It helps to strengthen the bench. You can’t teach your kid to drive if you’re always behind the wheel. We want to drive as leaders, but we’ve got to allow our team to drive every now and then. Create safe environments to give them small wins. We don’t need to throw them in in the fourth quarter, last drive, down by two, but let’s put them in in the first quarter, third drive. Give them some opportunities for them to win. A benefit of doing this is that your team will begin to depend upon one another, versus always having to look to you for the answer.

Another tip for building bench strength is what I call “How would you do it?” I worked for a leader who used a portion of every week’s staff meeting to have one or two people on the team share what they were working on and how they were attacking the problem. Then he would ask the rest of us to tell that person how we would do it. I complained that I really didn’t need any help, and he would shush me. He asked the team to share their point of view on how they would attack my job. How would they do it? This got us out of our own head. It got us thinking about the bigger picture of what the entire team was doing. A great question for leaders to ask often is “What would you do if you were me?” It’s an incredible question to be asking. By asking this, you open up the power of perspective. It gives you a new lens to see what you’re not currently looking at.

Our third tip for building bench strength is formalizing your succession planning efforts. This is not just for you, although you definitely need to have a succession plan for yourself. This is about who you are grooming for each role on the team. You should be looking at each of your team members and asking yourself, “Is there some education required for this role?” Do you have a junior person that could be promoted into that senior role one day? This is all Level 4-thinking, by the way. You’ve got to be intentional about thinking about the future. We’ve talked about this previously: how do you intentionally develop your team members so that they’re ready when it’s time for the next man up? It goes back to letting your kid drive. John often says, “Leaders, take a chill pill. If somebody on your team can do something 80% as well as you can, let them do it.” What’s great about that is that you’ll naturally start a mentoring, coaching, developing relationship with your team members. John says, “Don’t get prideful. If they can do it 80% as well as you can without your years of experience, it’s not going to be long before they’re doing it better than you.” You’ve got to have that mindset in order to build a strong bench.

Our fourth tip for building a strong bench is to have a formal development plan for each and every person on the team, including yourself. What does each and every person’s career path look like? What skills and experiences will they need to grow within your organization? Where will they get those skills and experiences? How will you track that progress? Is everyone working towards something in the future? Having these formalized development plans will make your team stronger. It lets people know you’re serious about developing them not only as assets to your organization, but as people. Remember that people join your team for one reason, but they won’t stay for that initial reason. So, what opportunities for growth and development are you continually giving your people to get them to want to stay on your team? In today’s economy, people have a lot of choices, and trust me, people are always looking for something new and better. Compensation is important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the only thing that will keep people in your organization. Developing your people individually is a great way of making them want to stay in your organization. Identify what their area of growth is. What area do they desire to grow in? How does that skillset align with what the organization needs from them in the future? Who can you pair them with on your team who can serve as a mentor to them? If you take these steps, you’ve got a team member that is going to be bought in.

The word I’m thinking about during this discussion is “intentional.” We’ve really got to be intentional when thinking about our succession plan. If you’re not, one day you might look at your bench and there’s no one there. If it’s just you, you’re setting yourself up for a real challenge. This is something every leader should be thinking more about.

I want to share a couple of statistics from a report on millennials. We try not to focus on millennials, because there are five different generations in today’s workforce, but I think this is worth mentioning. The report asked millennials, “What is attractive to you about an organization?” The number one reason, ranked first by 52%, is career progression. The second highest ranked reason, ranked first by 44% of millennials, is competitive wages. They also asked, “What are the top three benefits that you most value in an organization?” The number one response is training and development. So, intentionally training and developing your people for their career paths within your organization is very important to keeping millennials around. Number two, by the way, was flexible hours. You knew that was going to be in there somewhere!

This episode, has been all about developing people, Level 4 in the 5 Levels of Leadership methodology. We wanted to discuss this today because we’ve noticed there’s a lid in corporate America on the growth of organizations because many leaders don’t understand how to go from Level 3 to Level 4. We do that by developing our people and building bench strength.

As we wrap this up, here’s two thoughts we’d like to leave you with. First, remember there’s a difference between recognizing potential in somebody and recognizing readiness in somebody. There are some people on our teams that have potential, and there are some people that are ready. We might be holding them back. Those are the folks that we need to give the projects that they can do 80% as well as us. Finally, my last closing comment: don’t get burned by a surprise departure. We’ve all been in that position before where someone leaves us unexpectedly. It will happen to you. Don’t be unprepared. You’ve got to be ready to backfill that position. Have a strong bench.

As always, just a reminder for our listeners: if you would like to know more about this topic or the 5 Levels of Leadership, perhaps even bring a 5 Levels workshop to your location, you can find more information at You’re welcome to leave a question for us there if you have one. We always love hearing from you, and we really appreciate you joining us on this journey. This has been the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.

Leave us your questions below! Also, if you have suggestions for future podcast topics or would like to talk with Chris Goede about helping your company submit your feedback!

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