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

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

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,
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
, 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?