Developing direct reports is the responsibility of each and every supervisor. Succession planning provides a direct and easy-to-follow model for strategic talent management. Viewing employee development from the organizational perspective of succession planning helps to keep talent management activities focused and efficient. When we further impose the managers’ need for performance management onto the process, we add an incentive for full participation. Performance-based succession planning puts the responsibility for developing leaders where it belongs—on everyone’s shoulders. Every leader is accountable for helping develop subsequent generations of leaders. Every employee who wants to advance in the organization is a willing participant in the process. Unfortunately, an alarming trend in succession planning has recently emerged. In an effort to quickly head off the damage caused by the current exodus of retiring executives, many organizations are creating pods of intense succession-planning activity. The process has been scaled down into an event and has been put into the hands of a few overwhelmed designated specialists with full accountability, but no real authority. This has led to pockets of activity that are not coordinated. Management development programs are not funneling employees into executive development programs because they are operating with different talent models and technologies. High-potential employees are not recognized because only current job-specific information is captured and closely held by immediate supervisors. A more serious consequence of this centralized accountability is that succession planning is now viewed as an “extra-curricular” activity by managers. All managers have to do is fill out a few forms about direct-report readiness and they can then return to their performance-based reality. This minimal investment by managers has all the appeal of a magic diet pill, as well as all the fictional results and unfortunate side effects.
There is no magic pill for succession planning. There is no escaping the essential talent management components of job competencies, individual competencies, developmental opportunities, organizational personality, individual personality and motivation. There are, fortunately, some processes that are more direct and easy to follow than others. The designated specialists can be our guides, but they cannot absorb the responsibility for successful execution of succession planning processes. What follows are some of the best practices of these specialists organized by some frequently asked questions.
Why Is the Succession Planning Need Suddenly So Great?
There was a time when organizations had many managerial levels, and the abundant leaders spent a substantial amount of time in strategic activities such as process improvement, training and mentoring. Employees had expectations of staying with an employer for decades and hoped that after a few years of distinguished service they might be invited to join the ranks of management trainees. With the luxury of time, supervisors had the opportunity to observe direct reports across many situations and guide employees with high potential toward future career opportunities. In short, it was every supervisor’s responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders. This focus on future talent lasted into the ’70s for some organizations and into the ’80s for others. The executives who rose through the ranks during this period are now retiring.
After the more recent decades of job hopping, organizational flattening and downsizing, it has become increasingly difficult for today’s middle managers to devote sufficient attention to talent management and, more specifically, succession planning. Talent management is a difficult task when managers are supervising more people for shorter durations and pitching in on more of the production work. Many managers have been thrust into roles that are more akin to project leader than executive leader. This role is reinforced by compensation that is based primarily on production, which often comes at the expense of development activities. Newer managers have little firsthand experience of being mentored into positions of greater strategic responsibility. Not only are we losing current executives to retirement, we are losing the leaders who know how to develop future leaders all the way through to retirement.
Why Not Send the High-Potential Employees to Leadership Training?
We all know that it is futile to rely on training alone for any type of developmental activity. New competencies will not be practiced in an environment that does not value the newly acquired skill set. Mastery of these competencies is nearly impossible without the proper rewards in place. Add to this the negative reaction to being sent off to executive charm school relatively late in life, and we have a recipe for wasted leadership development efforts. For training to be successful, it has to have the commensurate procedures, rewards and time devoted to it. This can occur when the responsibility for developing leaders is shared and accepted by all stakeholders—not just human resources and organizational development.
Training itself can be multi-purposed to maximize its impact. A unique opportunity exists with leadership development to convert all students to teachers. Rather than just instructing potential leaders on the basics of leadership, provide them with the tools to develop their own direct reports. This has multiple benefits. First, you are preserving their dignity by not implying that they need to learn all the basics for their own enlightenment. Rather, leadership foundation topics form a toolkit that can be drawn upon to mentor others with specific developmental needs. Second, people learn a skill best when they know they have to train others through modeling and feedback. Third, you impress upon them the value of developing subsequent generations. Fourth, you reduce the likelihood of backsliding into old habits by putting more people on the same page more quickly. Fifth, you’ve built in a practicum on how to successfully mentor others. Finally, leadership competencies can be built into performance reviews all the way up and down the line.
Succession planning specialists can be called upon to provide real-time support in such areas as:
- Employee review and coaching.
- Brown bags on difficult conversations.
- Sample scripts with FAQs for one-on-one leader-“prospective leader” meetings.
- Action learning and other developmental opportunities.
- Short-term employee exchanges for developmental assignments.
- Peer mentoring.
- Partnering complementary leaders-in-development into high-stakes positions.
- Successfully navigating career crossroads without falling into old habits.
- A shared vocabulary to discuss generic (non-technical) competencies, values and goals.
Can We Just Focus On a Few Critical Levels?
Succession planning really needs to flow across all levels and divisions. Some programs fail because there are multiple models and processes in place. A manager gains comfort with one talent value system and then has to learn another because of a transfer to a higher level or a new division. All talent management, including succession planning, needs to be part of a comprehensive process working toward a common, strategic, long-term vision for the organization. Career movement that is fluid enables each transferred employee to add value more quickly. A test of the process fluidity is the length and difficulty of the period of adjustment that accompanies each employee move. By aligning talent processes across organizational segments including recruitment, selection, placement, development and compensation, we enable each new employee assignment to be filled with many more steps forward than backward.
Formalized career paths tend to be linear and static. There are many non-linear ways for employees to add value to an organization while developing their individual competencies. All employees are part of the ready pool for a whole range of opportunities, including leadership roles. All managers have an obligation to develop or update a talent profile for each individual they supervise. This is not an additional burden. This is integrated into their regular performance management activities. The direct report can and should contribute substantially to this profile. Differing opinions about performance can be a source of productive developmental dialogue.
How Can I Use My HRIS System?
A searchable database is ideal for identifying candidates for a particular assignment. Many organizations track information such as:
- Job history.
- General competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities every employee should possess).
- Technical competencies (knowledge, skills and abilities relevant for a specific job family).
- Personality (traits, preferences, values).
- Assessment scores (these often outperform supervisor ratings).
- Certifications and licenses.
- Relocation options (when employee is available and geographic preferences).
- Mentor relationships.
- Career goals and development goals.
- In-house resume (maintained by employee).
If you do not have a human resource information system (HRIS) that enables you to select multiple criteria or profile match, an effective alternative method is to create a matrix. List the competencies of interest for a position or assignment down the rows. List your candidates across the top. For each candidate, color the cell for the listed competencies green (competency strength), yellow (passable) or red (absent competency). A quick review of this single page can help identify the best-fit person or team. Ideally, managers would maintain a talent matrix that lists organization-relevant competencies for all of their direct reports. This matrix will be consulted frequently for project assignments, development needs, promotability, etc.
Why Would Managers Accept the Talent Succession Burden?
Organizational life is actually better if everyone does their part a little at a time instead of competitively or in big gulps. A moderate-sized accounting firm started each workweek with a Monday morning staffing meeting. At this meeting, managers argued and cajoled to get the most talented employees assigned to their projects. Individual manager success was won or lost each week in this meeting. The managers grew to hate Mondays. The company president brought in a facilitator to help fix the staffing meeting. Rather than focus on the meeting dynamics, the facilitator focused on succession planning and manager motivation. The facilitator asked the managers if they felt projects were optimally staffed. The answer was no. The facilitator asked if employees were given opportunities to grow and develop. Again, the answer was no. After 30 minutes of group problem-solving, the managers agreed that the underlying problem was motivational. They collectively decided to change their bonus structure from 100 percent individual project performance to 50 percent individual and 50 percent companywide performance. With this simple change in perspective and accountability, the very next Monday the managers staffed the week’s projects cooperatively. The new staffing goals were twofold: efficient distribution of competencies and developmental opportunities for junior staff. Everyone’s bonus soared, and the staffing meeting became a relaxed group puzzle to kick off each week. A more pleasant pipeline-focused process replaced a series of unpleasant events.
Traditional succession planning generally consists of organizational charts with the names of incumbents and prospective replacements. This exercise puts managers in the unpleasant position of deciding who is in, who is out and what to tell the employees who find out they are out. This process is both painful and obsolete before the manager hits the save button. This is indeed a burden. The performance-based succession model places all employees in a ready pool for assignment and advancement when needed. Leader-“potential leader” dialogues are a pleasure. Successful mentors find themselves surrounded by highly talented employees. They are sought out by high-potential employees. Even employees with less potential blossom under their care.
If all this isn’t motivation enough, let’s not forget that strategically filling the talent pipeline is every leader’s job. Spending a few hours a year building a talent profile for each direct report is not too much to ask. Directing leaders to be mindful about staffing and development is a minimal managerial expectation. Providing leaders with the support and time to lead others is an organizational obligation.
What Can I Do?
The leadership succession crisis inspired organizations to try new processes and streamline old ones. We may have collectively taken a few missteps, but ultimately we have increased our collection of best practices. There is no perfect model that will work in every situation. There are models that will work in most situations, especially with a little organizational customization by stakeholders. We can all help the process by being advocates for a clearly communicated, organization-wide talent-management process linked to business strategy. We can be the voice of reason in support of processes that support what leaders already do as opposed to piling on additional tasks. We can toss ownership of succession planning right back into the hands of line management when they try to pass it off to organizational development specialists. We can stay flexible and supportive of pipeline process evolution. We can ask employees if succession planning is working well. In short, we can each lead and develop by example.
Barbara O. Lewis, Ph.D., is director of training and consultancy with the Institute for Personality and Ability Testing (IPAT, www.ipat.com), a provider of strategic talent management certification programs, talent consulting and job-related personality assessments. She has provided organizations with support in leadership, succession planning and organizational assessment for more than 20 years. Barbara can be reached at email@example.com.