Succession planning is a process that very few companies do well. The keys to succession planning are creating a process including areas to evaluate each candidate and you need to stick to it for that period. If you continue to change the process it is because of a “flavor of the month” program, and no one will respect it and believe in it. Too many businesses feel the need to alter the program to accommodate an individual because either the individual doesn’t want to follow the process, or the manager doesn’t want to do what the program dictates. As part of this process, they need to determine the gaps they have either in leadership or technical capabilities in the functional areas. This will include looking at when individuals will be retiring or when individuals have peaked in their career and won’t be moving to the next level. This doesn’t mean that they are no longer an asset to the company when they are, but they become a blocker to someone looking to move up or the company needs a space to develop someone in. Succession planning isn’t always an internal candidate. Employees normally look down on the company hiring from the outside because there is a belief that the best people are from inside the organization. There is truth to that thought because the way the company has executed its work processes are known and there are no learning curves but if companies are to grow, they need to bring in new knowledge with different ways of doing things and give the freedom. Bringing a person from the outside is also a threat to those in the company and they will be comparing themselves against the new hires. This will create some constructive tension amongst the employees which will push people in a couple of ways, 1. to be their best and strive to improve and grow or 2. get mad and leave the company.
A successor isn’t necessarily the most technically astute person in that function but possibly the best at managing people and activities. General Electric was one of the best at this process. When Jack Welch was getting ready to step down, he had at least 4 successors to his role, which is a luxury, however it was also a curse. Once he and the board chose the successor to his role, they lost the other internal candidates because they were prepared to handle the next big role and took other opportunities in the market. GE was a master at moving the “best Athlete” into roles because they were excellent managers. When I worked at GE, we got a new business leader who came from the rental car business. A lot of people including myself questioned how this person would survive this industry (Defense engineering and manufacturing) because he came from a different business. Jack Welch thought that a well-rounded person could go through the various GE businesses and understand the business before they moved to the next business. This made excellent candidates for the higher-level jobs. I have always thought that someone that has experience in many departments made them a much more valuable employee versus someone that was in the same department for years. Even in the HR departments, I would talk with my team continuously about being my successor and told them that to move into my role you had to sit in the various seats of HR (recruiting, compensation, benefits, labor relations etc.). Some of the staff was content to be a benefits or compensation specialist vs. become a great generalist. The keys for succession selection on management roles is more about the ability to communicate, get people to work together and to motivate individuals. They don’t have to be the smartest technically.
Some of the issues in doing succession planning is that you will exclude people from certain roles and will have to have the tough discussion explaining why they weren’t chosen, and you will have some people identified as “high potentials” and prepare a game plan for them to develop themselves, but they might take themselves out of the running because of personal situations. For example, we have an individual who was considered “HP” and as part of his development plan he needed to take on assignments outside of the office, but he refused every opportunity because of personal situations. The company was ok with his refusal, and he moved along slowly or slower than others because they accepted roles in China, Brazil, Canada, Atlanta etc. and developed quicker than this person. After several years we re-approached this person and he felt that the company wasn’t being fair with him and didn’t provide opportunities and the entire program was not working. I had to have a tough discussion with him on this and after our conversation he understood. He eventually moved up in the company and gained experience that was needed.
Succession process needs a plan which includes a succession process of candidates internally and externally because there is a high probability that you won’t be able to fill every role internally. With this process you need to challenge the reason why someone would be a good successor and what tools will they need to be successful. The majority of companies move people into roles that are set-up for failure vs. success. Sometimes, putting all of the candidates through an assessment process that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and you can put together an experience and educational training program that will give these candidates the knowledge they need to succeed. We used DDI (Development Design International) for a global assessment of leadership teams around the world. This was a 12-week process that included 360-degree evaluation, answering over 600 questions, writing a document and an interview. When the process was completed, you had a document that was about 2 inches thick that went over everything. You needed to be open-minded when you read your document and needed to take the suggested actions seriously to improve upon what was suggested. There are a lot of less time-consuming activities you could go through such as Strength Finders or other books or processes. With all of this you need to be open-minded to accept what’s being said.
This process is not a once year process. It can be broken down that once a year you evaluate and select successors, but the development plan needs to be completed and followed with updates periodically. At some point employees will fall out and others will fall into the process so don’t get excited if someone leaves even though the initial pain could be hard to deal with, it goes away over time and you learn by it.