It's an idea that has inspired several movies, notably the 1949 comedy, "Kind Hearts and Coronets," which starred Sir Alec Guinness. The popularity of tracing one's family tree is partly explained by the hope of finding noble, famous or even infamous ancestors, and the prospect of being connected, however loosely, to one of society's "leaders." For most of us, it remains a dream. Yet every society and community, including the corporate world, needs leaders. And a key issue for business leaders (and the L&D professionals who help them) is identifying and developing appropriate successors.
Richard Lowe, Director of Training & Digital Learning at Hewlett Rand, says, "To survive, organizations must ensure an ongoing supply of leadership talent with the capabilities and experience to take the business forward." Yet a 2010 survey by the Rock Centre for Corporate Governance revealed that 46 percent of boards aren't developing successors, and that 39 percent had no viable internal candidates who could immediately replace their CEO.
Lowe said, "Typically, organizations only recognize the risks of ill-prepared successors when it's too late! In any case, when executives or board members leave the organization, there's a period of uncertainty, even chaos, which can jeopardize the organization's future. "The key is to have a robust succession plan to develop executive successors who are competent to take control, to ensure seamless business continuity." Lowe says succession planning can be broadly defined as, "Identifying future potential leaders to fill key positions."
He adds, "It's a key risk for all businesses. The organization's CEO and chairman must ensure that successors are identified and adequately developed to ensure they're competent for key roles. "Successors have short-term and/or longer-term L&D needs. You must identify these and do something about meeting them."
Seven steps for succession planning
Lowe's seven tips to bring rigor to these processes are:
- Use leadership competency and talent management frameworks to help you evaluate, identify, and map high-potential talent with executive and board roles.
- Create a succession plan for your high-potential talent. Then plan career paths and training programs aligned to meet these people's needs.
- Executive successors must have leadership skills and emotional intelligence to create a vision, drive change, lead people and engage with all stakeholders. Develop middle management successors with a tailored program that meets both the business's and the individual's L&D needs.
- Ensure executive and board successors are trained in all areas of internal management policies, protocols, procedures, and any external compliance.
- Develop a mentoring framework to ensure the effective and efficient transfer of relevant strategic, tactical and technical knowledge.
- Document an emergency action plan for key roles in the business, should the unexpected happen or a vacancy occur at short notice.
- Ensure that every executive and Board member's job description and ongoing objectives support succession planning, mentoring and coaching.
Lowe says, "Identifying and training successors doesn't have to be onerous. Larger businesses may have to meet sophisticated regulatory obligations and systems, but smaller businesses can have a simpler approach. The key is to develop a robust succession and training strategy to pinpoint and up-skill leadership and management talent. This can secure business continuity and sustainability."
Roles and positions - not personalities
HR specialist Roger Mayo, director of independent consultancy MT&D Learning Solutions, says, "Succession planning is all about roles and positions. If the discussion is about personalities, it can become highly fraught. "Start with a competency framework. Done collaboratively, this framework creates agreed skills, knowledge and attitudes across different levels and functions. It provides a sound basis for formal and informal learning for individuals, so that they can progress towards one or more identified positions." Even so, things can go wrong. Mayo says challenges can include:
- All the work is done in readiness for a senior move or change. Then, at the critical moment, the "powers that be" say, "Ah yes, but"
- For the most senior generalist roles, such as managing director or CEO, it's often too late for first-line reports who may be too "siloed" to flex to a generalist role.
- The appointment of a lower-level rising star may lead to disruption, including high-level resignations and other issues.
Mayo adds, "All these 'what ifs' need to be shared in advance with the key decision-makers and actions agreed if, and when, they arise."
Champions, Sponsors and Owners
Mayo adds that champions, sponsors and owners are key to the succession planning process. Process Champions, most likely the senior HR executive, should coordinate and oversee the succession planning program. He or she likely has the budget and people to make it happen, and to ensure that it aligns with business strategy. Process Sponsors coordinate and oversee the project. Champions should be able to strongly influence sponsors.
Typically, the sponsor is the CEO, chair, non-executive director, or a senior trustee if the organization is a not-for-profit. Process Owners are ultimately accountable for the project's results, and for maintaining the gains. Typically, they're HR or talent managers. They "own and breathe it," post-implementation. Mayo says, "The process champion fights for the process and is alert to threats or things that may compromise it, such as a sudden, ill-thought appointment to a senior role, and uses the process to highlight the value of thinking ahead. "In my experience, executives and organizations hate surprises, even pleasant ones!
This process, if properly maintained and appropriately implemented, removes just such a potential crisis."