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The Limitations of Succession Planning - Nirvana and the Foo Fighters....

I'm in a rock and roll kind of mood today.  As a card-carrying member of GenX, I grew up buying flannel shirts for nights out, which means the whole "grunge" scene was driving my fashion sense in college.Nirvana_2   Looking back, all I was missing was a thick beard and I could have been a double on the set of Grizzly Adams.  Good times, but it was hard to look like you were having fun with all the angst in those grunge lyrics.

Over the weekend, I had two rock experiences.  First, we finally broke out Guitar Hero for the Xbox, which was a Christmas gift for my sons.   After handling Barracuda on "easy" mode, my wife and I headed to the arena for the Jimmy Eat World/Foo Fighters show, which was a blast.  From a wellness perspective, it was cool to see that holding up your lighter has been replaced almost entirely by holding up the LED screen of the wireless device of your choice. 

One connection to my GenX/grunge days from the night out was Foo Fighters founder Dave Grohl.  Grohl hit the rock/grunge scene in 1991 as the drummer for Nirvana, the band that has remained as icon for everything related to grunge.  At the time Nirvana was popular, Grohl was an afterthought, dramatically overshadowed by lead singer Kurt Cobain, and his crazy wife, Courtney Love. 

Like a big corporation with a famous CEO, Nirvana rocked on and changed the music scene for a couple of years, until the equivalent of the Nirvana CEO, Cobain, committed suicide amidst a struggle with depression and dependency.  The band dissolved, minus the leader who had defined them as an organization.  Grohl and the other surviving member of the band, Chris Novoselic (bass), went their separate ways.  No succession plan there...

Over time, Novoselic and Grohl started bands organizations on their own.  Novoselic's fizzled, butFoo_fighters_wideweb__430x320 Grohl's project caught fire, with the Foo Fighters ultimately releasing 6 CD's since 1995 and being widely regarded as one of the best rock bands/brands active today.

My point - and there is one - is that Grohl was widely regarded as an afterthought in the initial flagship he contributed to (Nirvana).  Overshadowed in life and death by Cobain, Grohl used his skills to reshape his post-Nirvana career and develop an organization/brand deeper, more diversified and ultimately more successful than Nirvana. 

So the moral of the story is this - you have a Dave Grohl in your organization right now, a talent deeper and more creative than what's currently in the spotlight.  How do you find them and ensure they maximize their potential without having to leave your company?  Wouldn't it be cool if you could spot the high potential in your company and do something different with that talent? 

Of course, once you find a Dave Grohl, the problem is being brave enough to do something different with the talent.  Development of individuals in succession plans is difficult, mainly because as soon as you treat someone differently, you're putting them and everyone else on notice they are on the fast track.  That causes hard feelings and politics...

Most organizations don't fight that battle.  It's just easier to have everyone wear the same flannel shirt......

(subscribers reading via email or specific readers may need to click through for Foo Fighters clip below)



"Wouldn't it be cool if you could spot the high potential in your company and do something different with that talent?"

You have one, his initials are RB.

Frank Giancola

Read Jack Welsh's book Winning to see how you can differentitate and develop talent. He says that people are used to be judged through their experiences at school where they received grades and were turned down for admission by colleges, so firms should have no fear in juding and grading employees. It's part of our culture.

Firms have a tough time getting interested in succession planning, because they have not hired good talent to succeed others, and feel that the future company will be someone else's problem. It takes a lot of work to atttract and motivate good employees and some companies just don't have the resources to do it right.

Frank Giancola


Frank -

A primary problem I see when it comes to succession planning is that entire cultures have to transform to do the grading in a public fashion you are describing with Jack Welch.

Most companies either won't do it (most) or do it poorly (see Ford), especially when they've tried to follow the forced ranking method. I'm familar with the story and like the concept, but few have been able to drop the GE model into their business.

Too many cultural hurdles. Can't hurt feelings, etc.

Thanks - KD


And as a person of dual citizenship, to both Gen X and Y (depends on the source you use to define), I would have bought my original flannel while listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and transitioned to my Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog phase wearing it (yes, the west coast rap scene was strangely influenced by west coast grunge - angst and flannel - interesting topic for discussion, sounds like a book title).

Perhaps we can draw some comparisons to succession planning - let everyone wear the same flannel shirt, but encourage them to wear it differently as trends (Nirvana or Dr. Dre) or business needs dictate. Everyone can still be Dave Grohl – either founding Foo Fighters (being a rock star in your org) or in Nirvana (a drummer who is reliable, providing “steady beats”). In case you don’t remember, check out KD’s
The World Needs Ditch Diggers Too article at workforce: http://www.workforce.com/section/01/feature/25/09/16/index.html

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