I was chatting with the EVP of People Resources at a large company recently and it was refreshing to speak to someone who gets that succession planning is not a task or an event or development program or workforce planning. It is all those things and then-some. Developing internal talent takes time and recruiting talent is expensive, changing culture is extensive and re-branding may only be window-dressing. All these things by themselves are usually only minimally effective. Succession planning is a strategic initiative that requires a systems perspective. Myopic solutions will have limited impact and may not satisfy your corporate strategy.
The Traditional Approaches
The typical view of succession planning can be classified into three categories: emergency planning, succession planning, and leadership pool development. Emergency planning (also called replacement planning) identifies key positions within the organization and designates individuals that could, in an unexpected situation, take over with a marginal impact. Envision the organizational equivalent to the U.S. Presidential succession (if the President died while in office, the VP takes over, and so on). This is typically only a temporary fix and the understanding is the assignment would be on an interim basis until a permanent replacement could be found. Surprisingly, there are many organizations which have not done even this fairly rudimentary type of planning and they may be leaving themselves in dangerous territory should something happen (ie, medical issues, family needs, fortunate windfall, etc.) to a key executive or employee. The organizations that do attempt some form of succession planning typically stop at emergency planning.
The next level of succession planning is probably most similar to career pathing. This form of succession planning takes identified individuals and develops a plan to groom them to replace the person above them. While similar in some ways to emergency planning in that employees are targeted to fill a specific position, it is different in one very large way. With this form of succession planning, it is assumed that the individual will need development before being able to move into the role. With emergency replacement planning the identified replacement is assumed to need very little, if any, training. With the talent shortage getting more and more perceptible some companies (albeit a minority) are starting to make attempts at targeted development for succession reasons.
The most obscure and least practiced form of succession planning is leadership pool development. This aims to raise the general level of internal leadership. Unlike the other forms of succession planning, there is no specific role or next step for participants in this type of development. Yet, what many organizations lose sight of is that is should still be targeted. Simply because it is not aiming to fill a specific role does not mean it should not be focused. While general leadership development is good, the most effective leadership pool development programs work from identified competencies that tie back to organizational strategy. Regardless of the position, most companies have certain qualities they value in leadership that align with the strategy. Whether they are implicit or expressed, they should clearly drive leadership development.
Where these approaches miss the mark
Programs or activities tend to be fixed in time and have a beginning and an end. If succession planning is seen as a program or initiative or even, at a smaller scale, an event then it too will have a fixed time effect. If you approach succession planning in this way you may end up with a succession plan that gets you through the next year or maybe even two but ultimately the results become obsolete and you find yourself back to square one.
The alternative is closer to a strategic plan or cultural integration, where the timeframe is much longer and sometimes indefinite. Developing leaders within your company takes a pervasive attitude and a culture integration – something never achieved by a program or an event. It needs to be a part of your compensation, review, and training efforts. It needs to be a question in your interviews to determine how prospective employees view development and who is responsible. In truth, both the employee and the employer is responsible. In reality we put most of the ownership on the employee, even if managers are talking to their employees about it, the conversations can be lopsided simply because no one ever trained the manager on how to coach, develop training plans, or create stretch assignments. Employers need to do a better job of not just telling managers they “should” develop talent but giving them the tools, skills, and resources to actually do it, then reinforce and reward it. If managers are not getting recognized for either doing or not doing the activity, then you can likely bet it will end up on the bottom of the to do list.
I know that I should do it, I know how to do it, I do it, I live it.
Right now, companies are only educating managers on the “shoulds” of leadership development. Unless succession planning is a strategic line item for each employee’s development, it will never truly satisfy the larger organizational needs and you will find yourself in a continuous talent shortage and watch top talent head out the door. In order for succession planning to create a sustainable organization, development and workforce planning needs to be a philosophy that is integrated into the culture. Each manager, regardless of level, needs to see employee development as a necessary part of their function. And remember, employee development is whatever the employee says it is so be careful to not look at succession planning as career pathing, they are not always synonymous.