How Successful People Planning Is Like Planting Bamboo

What’s true of happiness is also true of work satisfaction. We have to go through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.

Succession isn’t just about plugging holes in the org chart, and it’s not merely planning for attrition or having the right people in the right seats. It’s also about preparing the right people for the right seats. It’s also about the sustainability of organizational knowledge, experience, competence and culture.

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Succession is about preparing the right people for the right seats.

Experts say there will be a $30 trillion transfer of wealth over the next 30 years. That’s a significant figure, but something even more significant is at stake – the transfer of human capital.

Nearly 45 percent of the workforce is between the ages of 21 and 37, and nearly a third is between 54 and 72 – at or near retirement age. This means more than three-fourths of the population is either entering the workforce or exiting. It makes no sense for these folks to merely pass by each other with a cursory nod.

Let’s talk

A recent study of 500,000 Americans and Europeans showed a pattern related to age and life satisfaction. The so-called U-Curve depicts a significant dip between the ages of 30 and 50.

The bottom line: The two age groups described above need to talk to each other. What’s true of happiness is also true of work satisfaction. We have to go through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some talented young professionals at UPS, and it’s been among the most rewarding experiences in my past 32 years here.

Having accepted early retirement, I’m on my way out the door, but instead of merely shaking hands or waving to these folks on their way in, I’m sharing some of what I’ve learned.

Work – and life – lessons

We talk about how they will brand themselves professionally, how they look at risk, career strategy, influence and leadership. These things make a successful career, but we also talk about what makes for a successful and happy life.

We’ve had the opportunity reflect on:

  • Who has been most helpful?
  • Your greatest failures? The unfounded fears?
  • How has your family adjusted to your career aspirations?
  • How do you best work with others?
  • What are your dreams?

This is the valuable stuff. These are not theories or high-minded ideals but real data, stories and experiences.

I’ve also had the privilege to be part of a team that visits colleges around the U.S. to engage students in what we call our “What’s Next? Roundtables.” We discuss the importance of networking, mentoring and perseverance.

As I often tell students, starting with the why works in some circumstances, but reflecting on my own path, the why often takes time to surface. Ultimately, other people shape the why.

My mantra now? Start with the who.

Tapping into the power of who

Students are anxious about the future, but we’ve found it helpful to steer the conversation away from the what (and why) and toward the who. We ask: Who do you want to be? And who can help you get there?

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It is helpful to steer the conversation away from the what (and why) and toward the who.

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to sit across from the CEO of my company, David Abney, and ask about his 40-year journey to that position. He told me about a manager who took an interest in him early on and helped him recognize his talents. In other words, the right who came along.

Many organizations accept responsibility for preparing the next generation. However, they tend to focus on skills, leadership and teamwork. While these are important qualities, I would propose a more organic and personal approach.

How about talking about what young professionals want to talk about? Maybe just asking how they’re doing? Why not have an ongoing conversation about how they see things?

As part of these efforts, how about recruiting those close to retirement? Perhaps retirees could even work on a contractual or volunteer basis to spearhead this kind of sustainable succession?

Planting for growth

There’s a story about a man at odds with his neighbor. So before moving away, he secretly planted bamboo in the neighbor’s front yard. What’s interesting about bamboo (unless you’re the neighbor) is that it’s the fastest growing plant in the world. Although there’s a delay of four to six weeks before it sprouts, some species will grow up to a meter a day.

Likewise, there is a delayed (but positive) ROI to sustainable succession if we can plant in a way that allows roots to form. It’s also quite difficult to get rid of bamboo.

We can all see the incredible disruption unfolding in our culture and our companies. The mantra is change or die, but to minimize the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we should aim to preserve our core principles while adapting our direction and tactics.

After all, why not plant for the most growth?

Mark Modesti is in Customer Solutions Sales at UPS. He works with customers in the middle market to help accelerate their business results by leveraging the expertise and technology UPS has developed in business process analysis, supply chain and warehouse solutions.

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