Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Making Succession Planning “Real”

I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.
This question from Jen:

“How do you make succession planning a ‘real thing’? We use Lominger’s competency modeling and their Learning Agility tools in some robust ways.  We ‘9 box’ folks and we have depth charts where names are slotted in to ‘Red (ready in 3-5 years), Yellow (ready in 1-2 years) or Green (ready now)’ slots.  But I can’t get those charts to be seen as real.  Names are plugged in but I don’t see people advancing from Red to Yellow and from Yellow to Green and then being selected to fill an empty position if they are in the green.  We’ve begun a focus on Individual Development Planning – and it is my main cause in life to move names on the chart.  And not just to move them but to ensure they are really ready.  How do I get the leadership team to see this as important?  When an open position comes they don’t look at the depth chart, they talk about people and then sometimes hire outside the company. 

Any guidance or best practices around making succession planning real would be very helpful.”

Another GREAT question, and what a way real scenario!
The good news is, it sounds like Jen really knows what she’s doing. She’s using good processes, tools, best practices, and is committed to the development of her company’s leaders.

I also think she’s hit the nail right on the head when it comes to seeing the need to begin emphasizing development, in addition to replacement charts.

Succession planning without development is only a hypothetical exercise. Then, of course, you need to make sure your development plans are seen as real, but that's the topic of another post.

Development will get those individuals ready when the opportunity opens up!

It’s also possible that her company’s CEO and senior leaders may only be paying it lip service at best. They may be chickens (involved), but they’re not pigs (committed).
Senior and middle managers are REALLY good at figuring out what’s “real” and what’s not. They have to be! They have so many competing priorities to deal with; they would drown if they didn’t get good at sorting them out.

They know something must be real when:
1. Their boss is always hammering, er…, asking them about it. They didn’t just get a formal letter/email (probably ghost written by someone else) telling them how important it is, they repeatedly hear it from the big dog.

2. It’s not just an annual formal thing – it’s operationalized in their day-to-day, month-to-month work. Most senior teams have Monthly Operation Reviews (MORs) – the real stuff is on that agenda, and the rest is all noise.

3. Bad things happen to them if they ignore it or don’t take it seriously. Pity the manager who keeps showing up with unprepared and can’t get on board; it’s not a pretty sight.
4. Good things (rewards, kudos, promotions and positive results) happen when they take it seriously and do it well. Word spreads, and everyone wants to pick their brains to see how they are doing it. They get awards and asked to make presentations.

5. It’s a part of their performance metrics and compensation. Key activities and results are tracked, reported, evaluated, and it has an impact on variable compensation.
If these 5 things are not happening, then you’ll hear them say things like “just keep your head down and this too shall pass”. You get resistance or compliance at best.

Succession planning usually becomes real when the CEO or Board of Directors begins to lose sleep over a lack of talent to fill key roles. They have begun to feel the pain of costly external mis-hires and long external searches while positions sit vacant and opportunities are lost.
Succession planning is strategic and a long-term priority – you can’t see and feel it on a quarter-to-quarter basis, so it often gets overlooked until it’s too late. Performance results are a lagging indicator of good or poor talent management, and it’s often up to HR leaders to connect the dots.

I’ve written about the importance of CEO commitment before. To me, it’s the single most important differentiator when it comes to succession planning and leadership development.
So what do you do if you don’t have the commitment of the CEO? Well, you could build a business case. However, the case has to be real – not just “because it’s the right thing to do and everyone else does it”. And if you can’t build a compelling case, maybe succession planning just isn’t a priority.

Once a CEO is on board – and truly committed – the rest is relatively easy. All of the best practices you have in place all of a sudden become important – and real.
What if you work for an organization where the CEO isn’t committed, or perhaps only somewhat committed, even after you’ve given it your best shot?

You can still move the needle, even if it’s at the individual level. Read the Starfish story, and keep it in front of you. It’s good to have a cause in life, and the development of leaders sure is a good one to have.

How about if we hear from others? How do you make succession planning real?


Unknown said...

Great content about a crucial issue.

Additionally we must have succession practice, not just succession planning.

It means having potential leaders regularly fill the spot whilst the current leader steps aside as coach. It's not enough to have them step up only when the incumbent is on leave or away for some reason.

Here's a link to my blog post on the topic:


Dan McCarthy said...

David -
Thanks, I've not heard that term. You get a plug for your blog post for coming up with it. (-:

Unknown said...

This is an excellent post about an all to real problem. We may be good at succession planning but we forget the succession development - and by doing so we are setting the successors up for failure. I have been recommending mentoring as part of the succession planning/development process. A great way to handle the knowledge transfer and soft skills development. I am going to definitely book mark this blog!

Dan McCarthy said...

Doug -
Thanks! Yes, they have to go hand in hand.

Antoinette Oglethorpe said...

This is an excellent discussion - and so important! One thing that makes is "real" is when the succession plan gets tested and senior management suddenly discover the name in the box isn't ready - or doesnt want - the move. I have seen that first hand as described in the attached blog post http://www.antoinetteoglethorpe.com/risk-to-succession-plan/

Thanks for posting this question and your thoughts on it.

Best wishes

Dan McCarthy said...

Antoinette -
Thanks for your comment post. Yes, that's a good test for "realness".