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April 2010
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TD Magazine

William J. Rothwell

Rothwell oversees a human resource development graduate program at Pennsylvania State University. He is also the head of a full-service consulting firm that specializes in succession planning and management. Rothwell has been a training and development professional since 1979, and has consulted to more than 30 multinational corporations including extensive work with Motorola University in China.

He has authored, co-authored, edited, and co-edited more than 60 books, including the bestselling Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring Leadership Continuity and Building Talent From Within, HR Transformation (with Robert K. Prescott and Maria W. Taylor), and Working Longer: New Strategies for Managing, Training, and Retaining Older Employees (with Harvey Sterns, Diane Spokus, and Joel Reaser).

Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?

For my first job, I worked at the Illinois State Fair as a ticket seller. I learned how to work under pressure because I only had two people working alongside of me, and between the three of us, we had to sell several hundred tickets in a short period of time. One time, when I counted the tickets and the money at the end of the day, I was $10 short. No one made me, but I put my own $10 in to make up the difference. That experience taught me to take responsibility for my own mistakes.

My first professional job was as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. I had to teach two classes every semester, so four classes total during an academic year. I was teaching Freshman Composition, which is a required class for all freshmen. I was a first-year graduate student and I didn't even have my master's degree yet. In those days, they didn't give you a lot of preparation to teach. They gave me a textbook and told me to cover these chapters, but it's up to you to figure it out. I had to basically take responsibility for doing something I had never done before. That's a little stressful.

My very first job was not necessarily related to my field of interest, but the teaching assistant position showed me that I really love teaching, and that's what led to my entry into the training and development field some years later.

Q| How did you first become interested in succession planning and management?

I wasn't always a college professor. I worked in the training field, both in the government and in the private sector. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was working for a 150-year-old insurance company (a wholly owned subsidiary of a Fortune 48 multinational corporation) that did not have a formal succession program.

The corporate headquarters told our company to come up with a succession program. So I bought and read every book available on the market on the topic of succession planning, and I was thoroughly disgusted with what I found. That's what led to the model of mine published in Effective Succession Planning that has become so popular with multinational companies. At least 40 of them, at my count, use my model in some fashion as the foundation for their succession programs. I got interested in succession planning because I had a work challenge and I didn't know what to do about it, so I did all the background reading, and I was not too impressed with what I saw.

In those days, there was a lot of confusion about the difference between succession planning and replacement planning within organizations. Today, we understand that there is a difference. Replacement planning basically means that, in case of an emergency, we have people to sit in, at least on a short-term basis, until we can do a proper search for key people and positions. Succession planning is all about developing internal bench strength so that we have a deeper pool of talent and qualified people to choose from when the need arises.

Q| Do you have any memorable experiences from your time thus far teaching at Penn State?

I'll tell a couple of stories. The first is that, in the academic field (unlike the business world), there is a possibility that someone else can nominate an individual to a faculty position if it opens up. That's what happened with me. I was working as a training director for Franklin Life Insurance Company, and my doctoral and dissertation chair, H.C. Kazanas, knew someone at Penn State, so when the opening occurred, he nominated me for the job. Then I got a phone call asking me to supply my resume and my recommendation letters, and I did that. Then I was one of several finalists called in for a job interview.

I had to think seriously about going into academia because I was already making a lot more money than I would as a professor, and I was on the fast track to become the vice president of human resources in a couple of years. But after the interview, I was so impressed with the students that I was very torn about whether to stay with my company or to leave. I talked to my family, but I was still unsure. So I literally flipped a coin to decide whether to come or not.

My first semester, I actually gave the students so much work that they complained.

Generally speaking, I enjoy teaching primarily because of helping people to achieve their potential. Many of my students are now CLOs or very successful professors, or in big companies or consulting firms, and if I had not been around, their lives might have turned out differently.

Another story is that Motorola University came to Penn State, and we had a discussion about their need for trainers in China. So Motorola, along with 32 other multinational companies, funded me to go over to China to teach graduate courses in training and development for an 18-month period. This was in the years 1999 to 2000. I trained a cadre of 69 people at two Chinese universities in the equivalent of a Penn State master's degree. They didn't get a degree, but they got the equivalent of it in coursework. I still go back to China quite often - I've been there 53 times since 1996.

Q| What is one change you'd like to see in the field of human resources?

I'd like to see HR people become more self-confident. My sense is that about two-thirds of HR people, and perhaps that many training and development professionals, are promoted from within. And sometimes, they lack a basic knowledge of HR or training, and their companies do not do a very good job of training them. The result is that they lack credibility with management, and if they get a seat at the strategic table, no one will listen to them.

I'd say the foundation of HR knowledge is knowledge of the laws governing employment in the country where you work. The next level up would be to know all the functional areas of HR enough to have an intelligent conversation with people who are working in that area. The third level would be knowledge of the business. The highest level of competence is the ability to integrate all of those lower levels, and to solve practical daily problems for employees and managers.

I'd also like to see HR and learning and performance professionals stick to their guns when challenged. In other words, they should know their stuff so that when a business leader says, "No, we don't want to do that," they can come back with strong reasons on why we should do that based on professional expertise. If you don't have credibility, you probably don't have the self-confidence you need to function effectively in a staff capacity that relies on the ability to give advice.

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Q| What is the importance of effective succession planning within an organization?

I do a lot of training with businesspeople on this topic. I always joke with my participants that when times are good, business leaders say we don't have the time for succession, and when times are bad, they tell us that we don't have the money for succession. The result is that we never do it.

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About 70 percent of all succession plans eventually fail, so one of the key things to consider is a program's sustainability. The problem is that most succession programs start out to solve a specific problem.

For example, many companies in the western world are quite aware of the fact the baby boomers will soon be eligible to retire, and many already are. Furthermore, because of the years of downsizing, many companies do not have the ability to promote people from within who have the necessary experience and seasoning to do the job. In eastern countries, it's not having enough talent to sustain explosive growth. If you're in China, you might not be able to find a qualified person to fill a key position to help sustain growth. People don't have the right degrees or the right experience.

As a result, many organization leaders want to do succession planning. The problem is that when leaders see progress being made, sometimes they lose interest. Once they lose interest, their commitment goes away and the program eventually fails. With succession programs, you need to continually revisit the goals and answer the question, "What is the business need now that this program needs to address?"

Another reason is to provide a systematic approach to everything in HR and to integrate it. Basically, that means reinventing it to make sure that the needs that the department or function are trying to address are still relevant to the business. Talent management and succession planning are clearly related, but there is a difference. Succession planning focuses primarily on developing internal talent. Talent management goes further and tries to find, develop, retain, and place the best people, and that could be an integrating force for learning and performance and for HR.

There is also the issue of dealing with unexpected losses that occur on a short-term basis. Do things just sit on someone's desk when a manager is on vacation? That means there isn't a good short-term replacement plan in place. We also need to be concerned about long-term replacements. Less than 40 percent of companies in the United States are equipped to deal with the sudden loss of key leaders. What happens if we lose a key person to sudden death, disability, or resignation? Many companies don't know who's in charge long enough for them to go out and do a proper search. We need to be prepared for those contingencies. Post-9/11, there's concern about what we do if we lose the whole corporate headquarters. If a terrorist sets off a bomb in Washington or New York City, could our organization survive if we lost all of our key leaders at once? That raises a secondary issue of do we have enough bench strength away from headquarters to be able to stay in business?

Those are just a few of the reasons for the need to bring coherence and a dignified strategy to people development.

Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?

At the moment, I have a book in the works with ASTD Press called Using Competencies for Training.

I am also working on a book that will be on the special issues associated with recruiting, training, developing, and placing technical and professional workers, or essentially, knowledge workers. Many knowledge agencies have been thinking "What do we do when we lose our leaders?" That focus is typically on promotions and getting people prepared to move up. But technical succession planning constitutes a focus on continuing on one level of the hierarchy. What do we do when we lose an experienced engineer, research scientist, or IT person? Particularly for high-tech firms, they may be losing their competitive advantage when they lose technical and professional workers. The same is true in government. Much of what an expert knows is tacit knowledge. The tiny subset of knowledge management called technical succession planning is about replacing institutional memory.

I also just published a book late last year on the manager's daily role in talent management: The Manager's Guide to Maximizing Employee Potential. It's basically what managers should do every day to develop talent. You'll often hear HR and training people complain that company managers think it's entirely the job of HR and training to attract, develop, and retain the best people. But the truth is that 80 to 90 percent of development occurs on the job, and the manager is a key part of that.

Another area I've been looking at is social relationship succession planning, which refers to the fact that parts of the business such as sales, marketing, and government and public relations are influenced by who people know.

If you're an experienced person in one of those areas, you may have spent your entire career building up a social network. But when you retire or quit an organization, you take those contacts with you. Especially in sales or marketing, there's financial value being lost to the organization. Passing along contacts is not the same thing as introducing someone. Our relationships are based on trust, from the experience of working with someone and knowing people will deliver on what they promise. The only way to pass on a contact is to mentor someone as they work with that other party.

There are other topics I'd like to explore in the future. One of those is ethics in the field of learning and performance. We don't have any good research-based studies on all the levels of expertise in the ASTD model.

I would also like to look at standards of excellence for organizations in providing a positive training climate. It's one thing to certify people in our field for learning and performance, and it's another to hold senior leaders accountable for providing the right resources.

Another area I'd like to look at is workforce planning, which tackles the question "Do we have the right talent in place collectively as an organization to reach our strategic objectives? If we don't, how do we acquire that talent? Do we develop it? Do we hire it? Do we outsource for it?" I'm seeing a lot of people complaining that all the downsizing from the recent financial crisis was not very well thought out. Because of it, we lost people we shouldn't have lost and we kept people we shouldn't have kept.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

My free time is usually spent lying on the sofa, petting the cat, and watching DVDs. When I have spare time, that's what I do. We have a big sofa, a smaller sofa, and a footstool. When we relax in the family room, I lay on the big sofa, my wife lies on the medium sofa, and the cat lies on the footstool.

When I'm tense, I'll go see a movie in the theater to unwind.

I also like to use my Kindle. I download the latest book by Stephen King or someone like that, and I read it while on an airplane. Since I spend about half of my time traveling, I spend a lot of time on airplanes.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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