Article: Getting succession planning right


Getting succession planning right

A look at some of the practical lessons on how succession planning in organizations is done and managed
Getting succession planning right

A good succession planning process needs to be backed by managerial courage and risk taking on people


Succession is a journey and not an event. The earlier we get on to the journey, the better prepared we would be when the event happens


Succession is a hot topic for most CEO and CHROs. A lot of studies have been done and articles written on this topic. Most of them seem to indicate that it’s a top priority for the CEO of the company. At the same time, most CEO’s and CHROS’s feel that we could do much better in how succession is planned and managed.  Here are some of the practical lessons that I have learnt from my experiences.

Succession is a future-focused process. One of the possible blind spots for leaders is when they begin to look for a person who can replace them as one who has similar experiences and competency sets as their own. However, in a VUCA world where the context in which businesses operates is constantly changing, the ‘ask’ from leaders is also evolving.  The competencies and experiences that make a person successful today are likely to be very different from what you need from a leader in the next 1-3 years. This means that when we define the criteria of what will make a person ‘succession ready’, it must reflect such future needs of the business environment and the organization’s own strategy.

Create a success profile. A robust succession process needs to reduce subjectivity and create alignment amongst key decision makers on “what is the common lens through which we will look at readiness for a key position?” This is where creating a ‘success profile’ is helpful.  The success profile encompasses the critical knowledge, experiences, leadership competencies and traits needed to be successful in that role. But more important is how do the success profiles get created? Who are the people involved? It is absolutely essential that this does not become an HR exercise. The business leaders and decision makers need to be involved in defining the success criteria (success profiles). The business leaders who must get involved in addition to the incumbent of the role are the key stakeholders, strategy leader of the company and the skip-level manager who is going to sign on the decision when the actual succession decision is to be made. The involvement of these people will build alignment and ease in taking forward the succession decision when the actual moment arrives. The role of the HR when building the success profile  is to challenge, sieve through the biases and keep the discussion future-focused and stretched yet realistic, by bringing a differentiation between the ‘must have’ and the ‘good to have’ criteria. Without this the tendency can be to look for a perfect utopian prince or princess charming! 

Objective assessments and authentic career conversations. Once the validated success profile is made, the assessment of potential successors against that profile will make the discussion consistent and ‘real’. I have seen this approach also appealing to the business leaders as it seems more logical and scientific to their minds, rather than a perception-based approach. In addition to a detailed experience and competency-mapping of an individual, the process must include assessment of leadership traits & capacities, and the person’s motivation to take that role. This requires deep authentic conversations with a potential successor on his/her career journey, possible career paths, future career aspiration and personal motivators. These discussions help to assess not just competence but also readiness and inclination. Sometimes, one may feel that one has the right person as a successor, however that role may not be an aspiration for that individual. During such career conversations, it is also valuable to look at career growth not just as a vertical growth but also possible diagonal and horizontal growth. Diagonal growth is when you may shift your function/business group and take a next-level role but not in your vertical group.  Horizontal growth, on the other hand, is role expansion through handling of larger complexity and responsibility in the same job. Discussion with potential successor on these possible career paths (vertical, diagonal, horizontal) also opens up the avenues to look at people in not just the most obvious succession plan, but in more than one succession plan. 

Balancing the ‘buy’ and ‘build’ approaches.  Let’s first talk of the ‘build’ approach. After having a validated list of successors on the succession slate for a key position, the next important step is to develop these potentials, depending on how far they are from being ready to take on the role in question. My experience is that there is no better way to develop successors than to create experiential opportunities for them to practice the skills and behaviors needed at the next level. The platforms for development created need to be safe spaces for taking risks, getting feedback and trying new behaviors.  Exposure to senior leaders through shadowing and regular dialogues helps in expanding the vision and seeing business problems from a strategic perspective. I strongly believe in creating a ‘succession pool’ rather than building successors in silos for specific roles. While highly expert roles may need a specialized succession strategy, a ‘succession pool’ based approach provides flexibility for both the organization as well as the individuals.  When this approach is embedded in development plans, it also means encouraging & challenging leaders to think beyond their own function or business.  

Now let’s talk about the ‘Buy’ side. The pace of change in organization and the increasing complexity of businesses makes it imperative that for effective succession, organizations, infuse critical high potential talents from outside at the right time and at the right position. Business leaders need to think creatively with their team structures to carve out challenging roles that can become the platform for talent infusion. These roles are created in a way that they provide quick exposure and targeted development for succession readiness. Organizations with a long term view on succession begin the process of infusion at the mid-level. More mid-level hiring and selective senior level hiring, in my view, is a good approach to take. It’s also a good practice to have a validated external map of available talent for key positions. A holistic succession slate for a role has both the names of internal candidates and also possible external candidates. 

The real test of a good succession process is when the actual decisions on successions need to be made. A good succession planning process needs to be backed by managerial courage and risk taking on people. Leaders need to put their bet on people and enable them to become successful. Many a time we become harsh on our internal candidates and use more tough yardsticks to assess them for a higher role.  Similarly risk taking is not just with internal people; leaders may also need to take the risk to hire a succession ready resource – sometime at the cost of huge discontentment of the internal team.  This process gets easier if there is constant dialogue with internal leaders, a fair assessment and feedback process in place and transparency in decision making.  The accountability of managing this process and taking decisions (sometime difficult ones) rests with each leader. If this expectation is not made clear to each leader, no amount of great processes on succession planning will bear outcomes.

Finally, succession is a journey and not an event. The earlier we get on to the journey the better prepared we would be when the event happens! 

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Topics: Leadership

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