Putting the “Success” in “Succession”

The legacy of a true leader should not be panic at his or her departure, but a team that is capable of filling the absence.

A couple of years ago, I had a problem: I was burning out.

For five years I had been building and leading a local soccer club.  The club was comprised of several teams who competed in outdoor leagues over the summer months and indoor leagues in the winter months.  During any season, I was playing on two of the teams, which generally meant that I played in two or three matches a week.  When I wasn’t playing soccer, I was thinking about soccer: who can make it to the next game?  do we need to call in our alternates?  who are we playing and what should our tactics for the match be?  who still hasn’t paid me their season fees?

Plus, I’d always be thinking ahead to the next season – effective recruitment is an ongoing activity, and it’s only by planning 3-6 months ahead that you can continue to bring in fresh faces to maintain or up the level of ability on the team.

No one who hasn’t run a competitive club can understand the time and effort it takes to do so.  It’s one thing to gather enough people together to field a team.  It’s another to recruit effectively to field a competitive team.  It’s another to field that competitive team week in and week out, accounting for injuries, vacations, etc.  It’s another to do this successfully season after season, accounting for natural attrition.  It’s another to expand the team to new leagues.  And so on.  Of course, add on all the logistics like registrations, managing league fees, attending executive meetings, scheduling training, etc.

After a few years, I really got the hang of it and found a rhythm for managing multiple teams in multiple leagues across multiple seasons (and the team experienced many successes, so that was nice!).  However, that isn’t to suggest that it ever became easy.  I knew what I was doing, but it still required immense effort.

In addition to the physical toll that was slowly but surely breaking my body, running the team had become mentally exhausting.  I see this as my own failing: I was unable to effectively compartmentalize my thoughts, so soccer would always be on my mind (similarly, work is always on my mind…pretty much everything is always on my mind, actually, simmering away…which has pros and cons); also, to that point I’d never really become comfortable with delegation.

Although I’ve played recreationally since I was four, it’s really only over the past decade that soccer came to dominate my life (at work I’m known as the soccer guy).  When I finished university, I decided I wanted to continue playing soccer in my adulthood, and that I wanted to play on a good team.  The most obvious way to achieve that goal was to create my own squad and stack it with top players.  Through my team, I’ve had the privilege of competing alongside, and against, players who have been part of provincial, professional, and even national teams.  A wonderful side-effect has been that my own game has improved.

Running the team had been a great experience.  I’ve met wonderful people, developed lasting friendships, had some incredible ups and character-building downs, and learned so much.  For me, it was never just about playing the game – it was about creating something…something special, something that would last.

It was tough to let go.

For me, it was never just about playing the game – it was about creating something…something special, something that would last.  It was tough to let go.

As I said, I was burning out.  Not quite burnt completely to ash, but I was definitely in the glowing ember stage.  However, I was torn.  I didn’t want what I’d worked so hard to build to come crashing down.  And not just out of selfish interests, either; I saw how much people enjoyed playing and genuinely wondered where they’d go if the club folded.  Our team had developed a terrific reputation, so most of the players would be gobbled up by others in the leagues, but some would be left out.  On the one hand, I knew it wasn’t my responsibility to look after everyone, but on the other I couldn’t bear to see it all disappear into nothingness.

After some thought, I decided that I would run things for one more summer, and in that time I’d try to find and cultivate people who could take over the leadership mantle.  I felt really good as soon as I made the decision, as if a weight had been slightly lifted.

Wikipedia’s entry on succession planning describes it at, “a process for identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key business leadership positions in the company.”  Well, the same is true in any general organization.  I started by looking at all the things I was doing; next I categorized them into functional roles: manager, coach, treasurer, registrar, recruiter, captain, etc.  It was important to me to give any interested folks an honest and comprehensive idea of what they were getting into.

My good friend Nino was the prime candidate to take over the Fusion (outdoor) and Merkins (indoor futsal) teams.  He was already running the Merkins indoor squad (since I had left that squad to create a second futsal team), and had been a member of the Fusion club since day one.  He agreed to take things over so long as he could share the workload a little bit, so it was on us to find another member of the club who was willing to take some things on.  Eventually, we were successful.  Over the course of the season, the three of us worked together to make sure everything was covered, and to do some basic planning for next year.  That covered two of the four active teams.

In parallel, I was looking for people to take over the Merkinaries (indoor futsal) and Exports (outdoor) teams.  These teams were both newer, so there was no obvious front-runner.  In this case, I put out an open call to the players, hoping that there would be at least one person who valued the squads as much as I did and was willing to keep them going.  To my great relief, Ruben replied and said that he’d do whatever it took to keep the teams alive.  He hadn’t run a squad before, but convinced a couple of other guys on the teams who had the experience to help him out.  Similarly, over the season Ruben gradually took on more and more responsibility.

During the next indoor season, I played on the Merkinaries squad and helped Ruben out whenever he needed it; under Ruben’s leadership, Merkinaries won promotion to the premiership, where we would compete against our “older brother”, the Merkins.  Nino had already run Merkins the year before, so things went smoothly.

In April 2012, after the indoor season concluded, I hung up my boots and wasn’t sure if I’d ever play again.  How have things worked out since then?

For the first six weeks, I was completely severed from soccer; in fact, I didn’t even check the league websites to see how the teams were doing.  After a while, my curiosity took over and I started keeping tabs on things and living vicariously through the game reports.

I stayed away until the last week of the league season, when I went out to watch Fusion win the Premier Division championship for the first time.  In the off-season, Nino and his co-manager had made some roster overhauls (something I never had the heart to do), and it paid off with silverware.

Under Ruben, the 2012 Exports were competitive in the league and cup, but came just short of winning either.  Nevertheless, the squad finished higher than the year before and was really gelling.

I returned to the field for the 2012/2013 indoor campaign, again playing with Merkinaries (but taking on no official leadership roles).  Mentally refreshed and physically fitter from a summer of cross-training and letting my injuries heal, I had my best-ever indoor season, netting 20 goals (I’m a defender and have to overcome a natural cautiousness to jump into the rush, so this is a big deal for me!).  Feeling pretty good about things, I decided to return to outdoor.  But that wasn’t my only decision…next, I had to choose which team to play for.

This was actually a really tough decision.

Fusion has been my team for years, and has played an important role in my life in that time.  The league in which we compete, the TMSL, is like a community in and of itself…it wasn’t just the Fusion guys I’d missed, it was the whole league.  And then there’s Exports…this squad is almost like an all-star team built from the TMSL.  It’s hard to describe how fun this all is – on Tuesday nights we’re all competing against each other, and then on Thursdays we team up to take on different competition.  The minutes before an Exports game are filled with good-natured ribbing about Tuesday’s results, and then the whistle blows and we’re come together to take care of business.  How could I choose?

In the end, even knowing that my body didn’t like (and possibly couldn’t take) multiple games per week, I committed as a full-time player to both teams.

In 2013, Fusion had an up-and-down year.  We conceded only five goals in our first seven games, then sputtered in the middle of the season, and eventually finished third.  Exports had an incredible year.  To simply say that we won the League and Cup double would be accurate, but would miss the amazing experiences along the way.  Not surprisingly, I sad out the final month of the season with an injury.

Nino, Ruben, and the other guys filling leadership roles have done a wonderful job not only keeping things going, but in taking their teams to new heights.  Plus, I relish being able to just focus on my own play rather than trying to orchestrate the whole squad; I see this as enabling the next stage of my growth as a player.

Effective leaders must be decisive and active in constantly shaping the team to meet its objectives.  Sometimes that means letting people go.

From all of this, I’ve taken some key lessons that can be applied to any organization:

  1. While zero delegation has some advantages (faster decisions), those are countered by significant shortcomings.  Delegation and shared ownership might be less efficient (but that can be managed), but they offer a built-in redundancy model, come with the benefits of increased group buy-in, and offer greater capacity for scale.
  2. Why did Fusion and Exports go onto new heights without me?  The biggest reason is the new leaders made the tough decisions to let some players go and bring in new talent.  I never had the heart to do this, and it held the team back.  Recreational sports are a funny thing, and leaders should make it clear to all players if winning is a priority.  When I was running things, I took an approach of “I want us to be competitive, but not at the cost of forcing people off the team” (mainly because I didn’t want to have those conversations).  Nino and Ruben went a bit further, and made winning the priority; in doing so, they had to make decisions about who got invited back.  The lesson for me is that effective leaders must be decisive and active in constantly shaping the team to meet its objectives.  Sometimes that means letting people go.
  3. Succession planning is best done on an ongoing basis.  I felt a little bit rushed to hand off everything in one season, and I don’t want to repeat that mistake again.  At work, I meet with the members of my team regularly to discuss and plan their own growth, and there are two main reasons for this.  First, I want to ensure that everyone is achieving personal fulfillment/self-actualization.  Second, I want to make sure the organization would be able to cope with my absence.  The legacy of a true leader should not be panic at his or her departure, but a team that is capable of filling the absence.
Players from Exports celebrate the League Championship, won under ridiculously nail-biting circumstances

Players from Exports celebrate the League Championship, won under ridiculously nail-biting circumstances

Ruben reaping the rewards of his tireless effort and commitment

Ruben reaping the rewards of his tireless effort and commitment, receiving the League Cup

Exports look remarkably fresh after a tough Cup final.  (Not pictured: me.  Reason: injury)

Exports look remarkably fresh after a tough Cup final. (Not pictured: me. Reason: injury)

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Posted in Everything, Leadership, Management, Soccer, Sports
3 comments on “Putting the “Success” in “Succession”
  1. […] to his passion¹) to my own experiences playing soccer. Over the last ten years or so, my teams (which for eight years I led) have won more than a dozen championships while playing with character and developing a positive […]

  2. […] at the right time.”  This is perhaps the hardest decision a leader has to make, and one with which I’ve personally struggled.  When to leave might be the toughest reality a leader faces, and leaving itself the toughest […]

  3. Many many times you and I conversed about your role. If you remember, I had advised you when you were leaving the helm that you can never really leave something you built behind. You are always invested and always part of it as it is a part of you. I always had you there not just for the physical skills that you have, but your ability to provide a perspective that some others do not have. Although we are playing the same game at the same time. That perspective is worth millions to some of the largest corporations in the world who retain exiting executives and former leaders to provide a different perspective that no one within the circles sees or identifies. That leadership is what led to what we accomplished this year. Bringing various views together to accompany the skillets present to produce a winning product.
    As I said before, this year was all about the various leaders I had with me. I was just the guy signing the game sheets.
    Thanks again Lee.

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