Like many aspects of how we do business, succession planning is changing. In the new landscape, what are the drivers in managing it effectively?
Think of a traditional family company, in which leadership was passed from father to son (usually the eldest) and you have an analogue of succession planning as many organisations have practised it for the last century or so.
In larger companies, a popular option was to start with a group of candidates who were all considered suitable and during the process, weed out those who were considered weakest until only the strongest remained.
This strategy worked for most organisations. However, it has a major weakness: “What happens if the business does not run ‘as usual’?”
In today’s environment, it’s hard to think of a single sector where business runs as it did 40 years ago. The way we manufacture, buy, move, manage, sell and teach has changed – nobody does “business as usual” any more.
Unfortunately, for many organisations, their succession planning does not reflect this. Today’s companies must anticipate ‘business as change’.
Planning for change
In practice, this means building succession planning on the foundation of your organisation: your business’ strategy.
Examining your strategy should show you the pivot points – the positions where performance is critical to success. These are the roles for which you need clearly defined succession plans. Then, it’s about finding the people that either have, or can develop, the skills that align with the strategic needs of these positions.
This process can be optimised by using the full suite of HR tools, including executive coaching, which is becoming recognised as a fast track to identifying and developing effective leadership skills throughout organisations.
Succession planning is not a set-and-forget operation; it’s an ongoing process that should proceed hand-in-hand with the execution, review and reworking of your business strategy.
In my experience, the consequences of poor succession planning reach widely across many areas of a business. The below case studies describe recent coaching experiences that prove just that.
Case Study 1: Watching frustrated talent leave
Stuart contacted me as he was having retention issues in his team, having lost two members in one month. The question we had to answer was why.
We began by looking for the organisation’s retention drivers and, after spending time with his team members, discovered that they were virtually non-existent. Stuart had little support – and even when he approached his employees upon resignation, he had few resources to convince them to stay – even salary discussions didn’t help. The fact was the organisation’s performance management and succession systems weren’t meeting their needs.
As a leader, Stuart felt he was regularly consulting with his team members, but due to lack of visible opportunity, there was loss of motivation and they eventually decided to look elsewhere. Despite Stuart’s efforts to talk to his executive leadership team about effective succession planning, they were unresponsive.
Unfortunately, in this instance, there was no easy fix; the company’s budget for learning and development had been slashed and there was no appetite to reinstate it.
The result of our coaching left Stuart looking at his own position and wondering whether he might be better off joining his departed team members.
Case Study 2: Managing and motivating an inherited suboptimal team
During a coaching session, Sarah and I were discussing her performance management and how she had inherited a team that was the result of flawed hiring processes.
The skill-sets in her new team simply weren’t diverse enough – and the most competent people had not been placed in priority roles. This created a situation where she found it difficult to develop succession plans for team members, not just in her department, but within the whole organisation.
We talked about solutions that included a review of the hiring process so that her successor would not face the same situation, and knowledge transfer programs to improve the skillsets of her existing team members.
Once Sarah had implemented these steps, she could begin to confidently restructure her team to optimise productivity and develop succession plans that would motivate and retain her best people.
*Names have been changed for this article