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Succession Planning Can’t Be a Surprise


Thu Oct 25 2018

Succession Planning Can’t Be a Surprise

The war for talent is real, and ensuring succession in key leadership positions occupies the minds of leaders regardless of industry. Shareholders, boards of directors, analysts, regulators, and other third parties want to know your organization has a robust and effective succession planning process. But what does that mean? What makes a succession planning or management process robust and effective in today’s environment? In the midst of this “war for talent” and the changing expectations of our workforce, succession planning must go deeper and be more transparent than ever before. Using a three-step process to identify, tell, and engage potential successors in the process is critical in preparing your organization for long-term success.


Organizations today have an enormous amount of data at their fingertips. In many organizations, leaders can access and review both quantitative and qualitative data on potential future leaders. Performance reviews, assessments, training transcripts, development plans, and 360-feedback, are all sources of data that can be organized and easily accessed for an individual manager or leadership team when assessing who might be the next individual to serve in a specific position. The amount of information that can assist leaders, particularly in larger organizations, in identifying successors has never been better. Fortunately, more and more leaders are recognizing the value added from dedicating human resources and investing in succession management systems to elevate this identification step in the process.


Unfortunately, this is where most organizations stop when it comes to succession planning, shouldering unnecessary risk in the process.


The next step in the succession planning process is telling the individuals they’ve been identified as future leaders. For some, this is common practice, but for many, the idea of communicating to a high-potential or future leader they’ve been identified—and perhaps timelines for succession—creates feelings of unrest. In fact, leaders often fear this step and might even pose the question, “If I tell an employee they’ve been identified as my successor, am I promising something I might not be able to deliver?” The answer is “no.” You’re simply having a conversation about potential, not promises. The onus still remains on the employee to perform at high levels and develop to a degree necessary to take on the expanded role (see step 3, engage).

But what happens if we don’t tell these future leaders they have the potential to elevate into the management or executive ranks? You’ll lose them. Not all of them, but more than you’d like. The reality is the employee-employer contract has changed. Individuals are no longer selecting career-long companies to work for, networking for new opportunities is easier than ever before, and countless surveys identify “opportunities for advancement” as a key attribute individuals consider when assessing potential employers. In short, ambitious employees and high-potentials are looking for career progression. If we fail to let them know what the organization’s plans are for them, we significantly elevate our attrition risk.


The final step in this three-part succession planning process is to engage the future leader in their development. Employee and manager should work with their talent management professional to scope out strengths, opportunities for development, timelines, and markers of success. If a manager is planning to exit the organization in three years, and a successor has been identified and contacted, then a three-year plan should be in place to close the gaps and ensure the future leader and the organization are ready for the transition. Engaging the employee in this process is critical, not only for ownership in the development plan itself, but also for creating deeper levels of clarity around expectations.

This step in the process never truly ends—incumbent and successor continue to work the plan, having candid conversations around expectations and performance against those expectations. What develops is a mutually beneficial commitment from both parties built on transparency and merit. Without this commitment, it is simply too easy for your people to leave the organization for a promotion or prospects of greater opportunity; and when that happens, the investment you’ve made to date in mentoring, coaching, training, and so on walks out the door with them.


Remember, the war for talent is real, and one of the greatest weapons in any organization’s arsenal is developing a succession planning system that not only identifies top talent, but also communicates and engages those individuals early in the process.

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