CEO Avian Bell's top tips for succession planning

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Incoming CEO of Quantumed Avian Bell shares how a positive organisational culture, strong skills transfer and a solid succession plan enabled him to rise to the top rung of the corporate ladder.

At the tender age of 28, Avian Bell has been named the CEO of personal medical supplies company Quantumed. He joined the business as the operations and IT manager in January 2014 and was later promoted to director in early 2016.

By 2017, he had become a shareholder in the company and was tasked with leading the expansion of the company’s footprint from Johannesburg to Cape Town – a task that highlighted him as a possible candidate to take over the CEO role. CHRO South Africa caught up with the young leader on how he is navigating the leadership path.

As a young CEO, what challenges have you faced in establishing yourself as a leader, and how have you overcome them?

Traditionally, younger leaders often have to put in significantly more work in order to ‘prove’ themselves to their senior counterparts, colleagues and stakeholders. This is particularly true when it comes to skills and knowledge. This is one of the key challenges I have faced throughout my career, but especially now as I continue to entrench myself at the helm of the business.

However, while this is a challenge, I believe it is essential to go ‘above and beyond’ in order to have these key partners, employees within the organisation and industry stakeholders buy into who you are as a leader, and the vision you have for the company.

They need to know that they are in good hands, which makes it important to take the time to clearly articulate the value, expertise and knowledge you are bringing into the business, as well as your goals for the future of the organisation.

It’s essential to put your ego and pride aside, and showcase your worth to these stakeholders by making an impact and by contributing to the long-term success and sustainability of the business. This process assists me, and will assist other young leaders, to build robust relationships that are built on trust and collaboration.

I also found it to be a particularly important exercise to sit down with the outgoing leadership and understand existing challenges, opportunities and threats, to gain a clear understanding of where we can improve – and how.

In industries traditionally dominated by seasoned professionals, how do you ensure your voice is heard and respected?

First, many young leaders make the mistake of coming into an organisation with the intention of ‘reinventing the wheel’. I believe the best process to ensure your voice is heard is to take time to understand the pain points of all stakeholders and constituents across the value chain. This will showcase your willingness to collaborate, and will assist you in optimising processes that may be ineffective or in need of change.

Second, there will be those who are ‘nervous’ about you being at the forefront of the business. This makes it imperative to showcase your commitment to continuous skills development, as this will enable you to stay on top of industry trends, and will empower you to help the business pivot with agility as the need to do so arises. Be open to feedback and take the emotion out of criticism.

Last, it’s essential to be forthcoming about where your skill set is, and where you will require assistance. Nobody is a master of all trades. As a young leader in any industry, it’s important to leverage the assets, skills and expertise you have within the business already – and to be honest about where you still need to develop/upskill yourself. Not only does this showcase humility, which is an essential quality for any good leader, but it also positions one as a leader with sound EQ.

How does the company’s culture support the growth and development of young leaders like yourself?

The company places a strong focus on the transfer of skills and knowledge from seasoned colleagues and leaders to younger employees, and understands that these young professionals are critical to the long-term success of the business (as they are the ones who will carry the business through times of change and uncertainty).

Where possible, the company invests into leadership training and furthermore places strong emphasis on creating a culture that supports and encourages proactivity and innovation, while also providing young leaders with the opportunities to showcase their leadership capabilities by leading key projects (from start to finish – with support where necessary).

Younger employees (rightfully) demand a career that offers them a strong work-life balance. This is something the organisation strictly adheres to from a leadership perspective, by ensuring that the team has access to sufficient resources and support to manage their workloads effectively.

In addition to encouraging proactivity and innovation, the organisation’s leaders take the time to acknowledge the contributions the ‘rising star’ talent has made and continues to make to the business. We are firm believers that recognition and validation is key.

What strategies do you employ to ensure a smooth transition and continuity of young leadership?

My appointment to CEO is a great example of how to look at succession planning.

Throughout my tenure at the organisation, I have been provided with ample opportunity to work closely alongside the senior management teams, as well as the founder of the organisation. This ranges from my time during IT and operations, where I was provided with multiple opportunities to showcase my skills, expertise and knowledge, and was eventually provided with an opportunity to expand the operations of the business. This allowed me to bolster existing skills and develop new ones that were critical to the success and futureproofing of the business.

For businesses, I would give the following pointers:

  • Identify young leaders with potential;
  • Provide them with opportunities to learn and grow (i.e., managing projects, launches and strategic growth);
  • Identify current existing and potential future challenges, and assess how the young talent will be able to solve them (using both their natural skill and acquired experience);
  • Identify critical competencies and align them to individual interests and ambitions; and
  • Charter clear and concise career trajectories for top rising talent, and ensure you remain invested in both their personal and professional development (for optimal staff retention and turnover).

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