Planning succession processes for any organizational role remains an inexact science. However, succession strategy and any effective growth planning share one common denominator: leadership’s authentic orientation and endorsement of employee growth. Endorsing and supporting a growth launch platform seems like a very practical matter, but it raises questions: Beyond compliance (such as onboarding, ethics, and risk management needs), if you take a look around the workplace, is a growth orientation clearly evident? What dynamic, physical forms of it are in place? 

The indicators should be readily apparent. For instance, what percentage of time are employees freely and regularly talking about solving problems, discussing customer service improvement, and so on, compared with the amount of time spent in isolation on routine tasks? Here’s another: If a departmental focus is training, are formal development efforts pervasive, and is time allocated to collaborative research and development? 

A growth to succession mindset requires institutional support, regularly broadcasted by all leaders. Moreover, growth as the core leadership principle within a formal succession program is dependent on a corporate attitude founded on actions that hire, encourage, and champion lifelong learners. A disposition for lifelong learning and growth would manifest itself, for instance, in language incorporated into every aspect of the job: website homepage or brand presence, job postings, interview questions, performance evaluations, coaching, and the availability of progressive learning opportunities. 

In daily practice, as soon as an employee has mastered their roles and are part of ongoing production and decision making, time and opportunity should be easily within reach to stretch beyond expected, daily tasks. As Marshall Goldsmith says to leaders, “If doors aren’t opened for people, you are closing them!” If personal growth is a prevailing business ethic, the design of workplace procedures ensures that all employees have avenues available to continue to learn, teach and collaborate, share, communicate, and cross-train. Growth is woven into the fabric of the institution.  

A learner-oriented succession culture requires seamless, continuous employee development. Succession-driven growth should not be confused with incentive-driven growth (such as stepping up the pay scale). Further, learner-oriented growth should not be something associated solely with those heading down a path to the C-suite. The inspiration or initiative to continue to grow is not synonymous with career-ladder ambition. Motivation, satisfaction, and breakthroughs naturally follow from being challenged to learn more or invited to experience something new, reinvent, and explore beyond the ordinary, at any level on the team. Promotion, on the other hand, is just a possible side effect. 

The Real Obstacles to Succession 

The establishment of growth as a value requires willing participants and elegant design. A succession plan must be consistent with organizational structure, incorporating the tools and opportunities in place. As with most planning, idealism has to be reconciled with reality. Whether in tightly controlled, top-down structures or more organic collaborative organizations, the creation of succession growth depends more upon functional reprioritization than an influx of cash.

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The following are some key principles for creating a succession culture.

The absence of coaching and the lack of frequent discussions of all employees’ aspirations is a chief obstacle. We repeat an age-old mistake when we too easily profile learners in a succession matrix, or fundamentally discount or do not help stuck employees. Yes, personality tests and inventories can aid placement or progressive self-discovery, and patterns of behavior may indeed be indicative of future growth, but the context of an employee’s entire performance and goals must be considered. Therefore, coaching (with nonpunitive, corrective, and actionable feedback) and ongoing discussion of the aspirations of all employees is a fundamental succession task. Not surprisingly, coaching is found on virtually every engagement and succession must-do list. Two fundamental coaching questions rise to the top in the literature: In order to grow, what do my direct reports’ aspirational needs require, and how do I as a manager make them happen?

The false equivalence of growth and ambition is actually an obstacle to succession. Just as self-sufficiency and actualization follow passion, achieving a learning objective should be satisfying and laudable in and of itself. If, in fact, leaders must be readers, what does that say about the rest of us? First, inherent to cultivating succession is that every employee should potentially display leadership moments, because every employee has formal leadership potential. You may not aspire to formal leadership positions, but this should not prohibit capitalizing on an individual’s capacity and drive.

A succession program should not be framed as a promotion pipeline, for two reasons: Potentially everyone is a leader, and, more directly related to succession planning, any promotion decision is bound to specific situations and conditions that can’t always be accounted for in the orderly framework of a pipeline. Promotion should neither be guaranteed nor implied in the context of formal leadership development.

Performance benchmarking is imperative, but performance alone is not a sole qualifier, because ambition can be accompanied by disqualifying bad habits. For instance, when promotion is strictly measured as a product of tenure and mastery of a role, a new supervisor may understand a great deal about reports, auditing, or accounting processes, but may comprehend very little about managing people. Micromanagement is at odds with the advice that you should surround yourself with smarter and equally capable people. Continue learning about succession plan reinforcement and succession dos and don’ts in the upcoming part two of this blog post.