Article: Retention through succession planning

Performance Management

Retention through succession planning

Retention and Succession Planning are paramount for companies which otherwise run the risk of losing great talent

We must know what are the competencies and experience needed to qualify for each key position?


Retention and Succession Planning are paramount for companies which otherwise run the risk of losing great talent

A while back, I came across an interesting quote by Cynthis Guest, from PMP - “If your unit is always running in crisis mode, only surviving on the heroic efforts of great staff, then you know you are in trouble.” This sets the stage for the need to plan succession proactively.

I also came across something very pertinent from the Centre for Creative Leadership that said Leadership Development = V+C+L = Variety of Experiences + Challenging Assignments + Ability & willingness to Learn. This tells us how tough succession planning can be.

I am adding yet another dimension to the above: Succession Planning = Retention + Great Employee Engagement. Many years back, Management Expert Peter Drucker had said “The final test of greatness in a CEO is how well he chooses a successor and whether he can step aside and let his successor run the company.” Well, it’s not just about CEOs, but about all People Managers within an organization - following a process that ensures the continuation of a business through the generations is what is required and that is what good succession is all about.

In my career, the three most important and yet most difficult areas that I have found in organizations have been manpower planning (optimum manpower for each job/role), retention and succession planning. Here I will speak more of succession planning and how it relates to retention. These two subjects are certainly related, because you can plan for succession only when you retain your best talent. It’s precariously dangerous if not anything else, for organizations that do not focus on both these aspects as they run the risk of losing great talent otherwise. Succession planning is in fact retention of institutional knowledge focusing on the critical positions where knowledge loss is the greatest threat. It is about identifying and prioritizing the specific knowledge and skills at risk.

What makes both these subjects so difficult to manage is the multiplicity of factors that influence them. Not being with an employer could have a thousand explanations and so does staying with an employer for long. Retention is so personal a subject that it varies all the way from one employee to another. While for some it may be about compensation, for others it may be work-life balance, their immediate manager, the brand value of the employer... the list goes on. The reasons for being with an employer may be as diverse and close to heart such as how much the organization really delves into Corporate Social Responsibility. Yet Succession remains one of the most potent tools to boost retention.

As stated earlier, I find Succession Planning a tough operation because one needs to define and work on a multiplicity of factors, some of them being:
• Finding the right leaders does matter … in managing/driving accountability, results, culture. After all, it’s the next inflection point (like Jim Collin’s Good to Great) that one is really looking at with each leader, be it at the CEO level or any other level in the organization;
• Maintaining that performance is what counts … top performers over high potentials (the “what” & “how” both count). Its tough to retain one and let the other go;
• Recognizing that today’s top performing leaders aren’t necessarily tomorrow’s … even our best leaders can fall behind or derail, making current succession planning sometimes more complex;
• Establishing Talent as an enterprise resource … willingness to share talent makes the system work. Talent cannot be restrictive!
• Focusing on a broad set of experience & assignments is the best classroom … yet a balanced approach is still necessary for development & then succession;
• Ensuring that its incumbent upon today’s “top-100” to leave a legacy of future talent … current leaders must teach, mentor, & role model others on what it takes to succeed;
• Investing in the best... Do not waste time on talent that cannot be developed. Do not hire them in the first place.
The multiplicity of factors calls for steps to make the exercise of succession planning a success. I have outlined some of these below for reference:

We must know our assessment of key positions: this means we must know what are the competencies and experience needed to qualify for each key position?

We must identify our Key Talent: Typically people at the top two levels of the organization/department and high potential employees one level below. This is usually identified by their management’s assessment of their performance and potential for advancement.

We must carry out assessment of our key talent: For each person on the radar screen, primary development needs are identified focusing on what they need in order to be ready for the next level.

Take the assistance of Development Plans: A development plan is prepared for how to help the person develop over the next year.

Focus on Development, Monitoring & Review: An annual or semi-annual succession planning review must be held to review progress of key talent and to revise their development plan.

Whenever focusing on succession, the highest returns would come from...

• Full job change focused on development needs
• Job restructuring based on development needs
• Mini P&L assignments
• Cross divisional project leadership or assignment
• Focused coaching & counseling
• Customer visits accompanying senior executives

Initiatives such as Formalized Education Programs, 360 Degree Feedback & Evaluation do help as well.
Each of the steps above are baby steps towards developing concrete, actionable responses to ensure that there is proactive prevention of loss of key skills through retention. Each baby step is a huge exercise that must necessarily be undertaken by any organization that does not want to lose its key talent to competition.

All the above steps would not happen without big hurdles. These are time consuming with NO immediate results, huge resistance from existing managers sometimes as they may feel threatened (what would assessment throw open!), politically dynamic (and sometimes leading to instability as well), immediate exits after looking at the development/succession plan etc.

At the end of the day, there is a limited talent pool of great employees, leaders/potential leaders want to work for quality organizations and want an opportunity to identify and groom themselves as potential leaders for advancement.
All the steps outlined while implementing a succession planning exercise lead to answering pertinent questions about an employee’s career. By assessing the incumbent in his/her role and taking decisions on the future potential, one is transitioning from a grey area surrounding the how’s and why’s of the employee’s career to something that is more black and white and concrete. Which employee therefore doesn’t want to stay in such an environment? This holds good more so for top talent that anyways wants to aggressively follow career plans to not only dream but also achieve big!

Rajesh Rai is the HR Director of Benetton India

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Topics: Performance Management, Learning & Development, #BestPractices

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