Filling key vacancies will be a challenge without proactive efforts.
The high base rate of executive failure, as well as the outsized impact executives have on organizations, makes succession planning a consequential activity. In any collectivity, from sports teams to families to organizations, the quality of leadership determines the group’s fate. Bad leadership causes a lot of problems, stress, drama, and sometimes even crime—remember the global financial crisis of 2008?
Companies struggle to find and develop the right people to lead because choosing future-ready leaders goes against human nature. In leadership, the outdated human mind selects for leadership of the past instead of leadership of the future.
The goal of modern succession planning (and beyond) is to find and develop high-potential employees who can lead complex, multicultural ecosystems that create meaning, purpose, and value for organizations and society. Here’s how to do so.
Build the right beliefs around talentThere are two areas where beliefs play into succession. The first is leadership in general.
The second area includes beliefs that facilitate effective succession planning. A succession program should have a purpose, goals, and beliefs that guide it. These beliefs must exist to effectively find and develop star players:
- Science. Minimize bias and find the best talent by using the science of assessment to predict leadership effectiveness.
- Inclusion. Identify and develop leaders regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and other demographic variables.
- Altruism. Take pride in investing in people for their personal improvement.
- Results. Ensure the organization selects and develops leaders who are going to create value.
Align talent with strategy and structureAs talent development professionals, we must understand the overall corporate strategy and business unit strategies. Succession exists to facilitate the organization’s mission and objectives. For example, an international expansion strategy is different from a focus on cutting costs and downsizing.
In addition, organizational structure matters when it comes to career development. Succession is mostly about development, and leadership development is more than just behavior change. Sure, an overconfident leader should work on humility, but they also need a developmental career path.
Create success profilesUsing strategic objectives, employers can create success profiles in a broad or specific way. Broad success profiles define what good looks like for a range of roles by location, level, or function, or create a success profile for every leader in the organization (also known as a leadership competency model).
In contrast, specific success profiles analyze a single position, such as a chief financial officer. Position-based success profiles can include tangible objectives and facilitate an in-depth assessment methodology.
Regardless of whether the success profiles are broad or specific, best practice is dichotomizing them into the business versus psychology sides of leadership. The business side is about background, experience, and the position’s objectives. For example, if the strategy is international expansion and the position has several objectives the leader must achieve over the next year, has the individual experienced those scenarios before? Was it at the same scale?
The psychology side concerns leadership style and the culture a leader creates for others. Do they have a global mindset that facilitates international expansion? Do they have an inclusive style that will work well across cultures? Do their values match and complement the organization’s values?
Make use of dataAnother best practice for creating success profiles is a mixed methods approach of qualitative and quantitative data. To gain qualitative data, conduct one-on-one interviews with subject matter experts and facilitate focus groups. For quantitative data, the company should administer a job analysis survey pinpointing the most important leadership traits and behaviors. Cross-validate the data.
An optional part of the process, and the gold standard if feasible, is a research study showing differences between ineffective and effective leaders. In such a scenario, the organization matches assessment data with a performance metric (such as engagement scores, 360-degree survey results, and performance management data). By leveraging leadership characteristics with tangible outcomes along with advanced statistics, employers truly see what predicts effective and ineffective leadership.
Use objective assessments of leadership potentialSuccession programs should value science because it’s an organization’s main defense against bias. Biases have moral implications, but intuition-driven biases also fail to find and invest in next-generation leaders. Practically speaking, the succession committee should use a leadership assessment process that’s fair, objective, and predictive.
To do so, I’ve found that the best assessment methodology is an in-depth interview, psychometric assessments, and a 360-degree survey.
Eliminate manager nominationsThe most common method employers use to decide who has potential is asking the leader’s manager, which reinforces a hierarchical system (in other words, those in power should decide who’s in power next).
However, research shows that organizations that open their performance management process from manager nominations to 360s get a bump in engagement because people appreciate a democratic system.
Use data in talent review meetingsThe value for science extends beyond using objective assessments. Also incorporate scientifically derived data in talent review meetings between HR business partners and executive leaders.
Integrate talent management activitiesSuccession is code for everything talent management, including workforce planning, talent acquisition, performance management, and L&D. Everyone is involved.
Identify who is responsible for aligning talent management activities, such as the head of talent management or chief HR officer. If forming a succession committee, the goal is to have representation across every talent management function.
Follow through on leadership developmentAlthough employers spend a lot of time on development, leadership programs often don’t sustain behavior change.
In consulting with hundreds of chief executives, I’ve identified two common mistakes. The first is failure to accelerate development for high-potential employees. The second is that organizations forget about context; they create leadership development programs, throwing together a journey with general leadership skills (such as giving feedback, coaching, and self-management). The beauty of succession is that it creates context for leadership development.
Further, companies can generate context by evaluating a group of leaders in a program to elucidate key strengths and shared areas of opportunity, enabling TD professionals to tailor content to cohort needs.
Success for successorsSuccession planning is an essential blueprint for ensuring the right people are leading the organization. It is both a program and a process. The program offers the strategic direction and values, and the process ensures its execution.
Remember why we engage in succession in the first place. Beyond organizational effectiveness, there’s a broader responsibility: to help leaders and organizations navigate change and shape a better future.
To truly win, and more significantly, to create lasting value for society, employers must de-bias their commitment to finding and nurturing leadership talent. As business evolves, companies that use the science of succession will stand resilient against change, shaping not just their futures, but the future of the world around them.
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