Success’n Planning

I was told the other day that it’s typically only the big private sector companies that do succession planning in New Zealand and generally the focus is only at CEO-replacement level. It got me thinking, as these things are wont to do. It had me scurrying off into journals to see what gems of international best-succession-planning- practice could be found. It left me wondering how some of the practices I found could be used throughout an organisation. I think they can be – how would these go in your organisation?I was told the other day that it’s typically only the big private sector companies that do succession planning in New Zealand and generally the focus is only at CEO-replacement level. It got me thinking, as these things are wont to do. It had me scurrying off into journals to see what gems of international best-succession-planning- practice could be found. It left me wondering how some of the practices I found could be used throughout an organisation. I think they can be – how would these go in your organisation?

Just to clarify the term, succession planning is the managing of an organisation’s pool of leadership and management talent. It means identifying where the actual and potential talent is within the organisation. It means providing the talented with real opportunities for growth and development and ensuring they are monitored throughout their journey of personal and professional development. It’s also about encouraging the talented to stay within the organisation and ensuring the organisation benefits by their expertise.

The theory of succession planning is great, but there are some difficulties with it. For example, as a result of downsizing, reengineering, call it what you will, it’s harder to find developmental opportunities – fewer organisational levels exist and there are now broader spans of control, than in the past. To consider long term career plans within one organisation can be optimistic, given the trend towards constant organisational change. Traditional career paths are long gone. There’s a trend towards external recruitment. There is an emphasis now on ‘managing one’s own career’ and considering external opportunities alongside internal opportunities. However, leaving such difficulties aside for a moment, what are some of the ‘best practices’?

Identify the talent in your organisation, but do so early on in an individuals organisational life. Identify the ‘clearly talented’ and the ‘have potentials’, regardless of their level within the organisation. Monitor their progress, work experiences and remuneration. Develop a checklist of the characteristics that predict success at higher levels (shows initiative to seek and solve problems; seeks opportunities beyond narrow job responsibilities; ability to gather and interpret information; ability to adapt from experience, just to name a few) and use it to talent spot. Clearly identify the competencies the organisation needs for the future – know what is available now and identify the gaps between the two.

Identify stretching, challenging duties that will provide the talented with developmental opportunities. Take calculated risks and put people into specific assignments with appropriate support systems.

Develop effective monitoring mechanisms, including specific, individualised development plans. Monitor individuals’ progress through regular, focused updates. Tie development plans to the bigger strategic picture – what’s needed in the future – and ensure the plans bridge the gap between the two. Use multi-rated feedback appraisal systems to assist individuals’ self-awareness and identify some content for the development plans.

Get multiple viewpoints when identifying the talented in the workplace. Avoid the single source of assessment as there is the potential to overrate out of personal loyalty or underrate for fear of losing a talented individual. Assemble a small assessment team of senior managers and line managers, to discuss individuals’ strengths, weaknesses, potential for growth and the opportunities that could be the most beneficial for them and the organisation. Develop a checklist of competencies and skills required by ‘ideal’ managers. Update the checklist regularly and ensure it’s linked to the organisation’s strategic direction, goals and values. Include, as a corporate responsibility, succession planning into the organisation’s values. Ensure policies exist to translate the value into action.

Search externally to establish a ‘talent benchmark’ to avoid an insular, narrow focus when assessing individuals for key positions. Interviewing external candidates is one way of knowing what’s out there and what’s been required by the competitors.

There are a number of obstacles to watch for when establishing succession planning processes. Reviews which fail to adequately identify the talented and potentials can set the scene for later problems. Another impediment is poor follow up on individual development plans. If plans are vague, lack monitoring mechanisms, timeframes and accountability, they will be ineffective. If there are no incentives and sanctions for senior managers to drive the development of key people, the outcomes could be poor. Another stumbling block is the lack of input from individuals into their own development plan. Avoid creating unrealistic expectations of what the individuals’ can do or what the organisation can provide. Failure to link individuals’ efforts with recognition or reward systems can encourage them to walk out the door. Another obstacle to avoid is focusing only on the type and number of positions required in an organisation, and not on the numbers and skills needed for the future.

These best practices can be easily adapted and used, I believe. There are some implementation difficulties to be had and some obstacles to avoid. If you can minimise or eliminate the difficulties, then the benefits both to the talented individuals and the organisation, can be enormous.

First Published in NZBusiness November 2001

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