Succession Planning: Why Recruiting Needs to Focus on Internal Movement (Part 1 of 2)

What is Succession Planning?

Organizations use succession planning to help mitigate the risk of a vacancy occurring in key management and leadership roles that could impact the organization’s ability to perform.

In more strategic organizations, the scope of succession planning is expanded to include high-impact and mission-critical roles throughout the organization.

The activity looks at talent within (and in a few rare cases outside the organization) that can be developed to step into key roles on a timeline consistent with an anticipated vacancy. In essence, it looks to develop key players who can sit on the bench until needed. Positions with two or more possible replacements in development are considered to have a strong “bench strength,” while those with only one or none have little or no bench strength.

Why Tap Recruiters for Succession Planning?

While development for roles covered by the succession plan can include traditional training, more and more organizations are adopting a development approach that relies heavily on coordinating the acquisition of new skills or capabilities via rotations through roles that enable on-the-job learning and mastery of those key skills.

As product lifecycles have gotten shorter, so too has the timeframe with which organizations can develop talent. A few years ago, a manager in development may have had to sit in a role for 48 months in order to experience a full product cycle, but today that experience may only require a 10-14 month stint.

Given the changes in workforce demographics, global competition, mergers and acquisition volume, and technology, the act of developing through rapid redeployment has become a profoundly popular topic among senior leaders.

Recruiters spend their days identifying talent ready to assume roles that provide similar or greater responsibility, often finding talent overlooked or neglected by their own organizations.

Because many organizations have managers who fail to develop their talent, or hold back employees ready for more, it makes sense to let recruiters turn their attention inwards, identifying people who can and will assume greater roles externally if not tapped internally soon. (Before you dismiss this case as not applying to your firm, remember that study after study identifies bad managers and lack of challenge/opportunity as the number one and number two reason people leave a job.)

The Critical Goals of Succession Planning

No program can be successful unless everyone involved clearly understands the desired goals and outputs of the program. The six strategic goals of succession planning include:

  1. No business problems caused by a lack of leadership/mission critical talent. The goal is to assure the attainment of business goals because the right talent has been identified, rapidly developed and placed in the right job exactly when needed.
  2. To identify talent gaps. To identify possible future talent shortages and gaps by comparing “what we have now” to “what we will need.”
  3. Identify individuals with potential. To identify the individuals within the organization that have the highest probability of successfully becoming future leaders or key contributors in mission critical roles within the firm. The best plans identify individuals that would not fall in the “immediate vicinity” of the targeted leadership job when viewing the firm’s organizational chart.
  4. Speed up development. To define the best series of jobs or “development paths” through the organization that results in the maximum learning and development speed for each of the targeted potential leaders.
  5. Minimize leader turnover and frustration. To increase performance and retention rates among developing leaders because of the way they are treated as part of the succession plan.
  6. Discourage the hoarding of leadership talent. To set up a series of metrics and rewards that discourage managers from hoarding top talent and instead, speed its development.

Unfortunately Most Succession Plans Are Weak

Succession planning in most organizations is a joke, existing as little more than an organizational chart identifying potential vertical moves into leadership roles. (More often than not, when actual moves do occur, rarely is the plan even consulted.)

People noted on the plan will almost always go through a leadership development program designed and delivered by corporate trainers that may or may not involve some simulation or case study work. This type of program is common, often coordinated in an ad-hoc way, rarely produces world-class results, and most certainly does not live up to the evolving expectations of senior leaders in leading-edge companies.

Succession planning programs under-perform because they are not designed or managed as systems. A system takes inputs, runs them through a series of processes, and produces a predicted output.

One of the best ways to design a succession plan (or any strategic HR process) is to begin the design process starting at the backend, identifying each of the desirable outputs of the process. Generally, there is an output or success measure for each of the stated program goals. The logic behind this “backward” process is simple: you need to design your succession planning program and its key elements not in isolation, but instead by tying program features directly to the desired program outputs.

By clearly defining the desirable outputs, you let everyone know the key purposes of the process, as well as how success will be measured.

Checklist for Assessing Your Succession Plan Using Metrics

Succession plan effectiveness measures can be broken into two basic parts and five groups. The first part covers usage and design, while the second part covers output or success measures.

Part A Operational Measures

Group 1 — Usage factors:
The target audiences for a succession plan are those managers who are responsible for making promotion and lateral transfer decisions for leadership jobs that are covered by the plan. A succession plan can’t be successful if it’s not distributed, read, and actually utilized by managers who make such decisions. Some manager-usage metrics to consider include:

  • It is a written plan (if a plan isn’t written, it can’t be distributed).
  • Percentage of the target managers who have received a copy of the plan.
  • Percentage of targeted managers who have actually read the plan.
  • Average satisfaction rate among users. (Low satisfaction rates can lead to low usage among hiring managers. Low satisfaction among plan employees can lead to having other employees be reluctant to be placed on the plan.)
  • Percentage of managers actually using the plan for “movement” decisions (the plan cannot be considered successful unless it is actually used by most managers to determine which individual should be promoted or transferred into a particular leadership position).
  • Percentage of all movement decisions in which the plan was utilized (this is similar to the last measure, except it covers the percentage of movement decisions in which the plan was used as a guide).

Group 2 — Assessing whether your plan contains key design features:

You automatically limit the capabilities of any succession plan when you omit some of the essential design features mentioned here:

  • Focuses not only on promotions but also on progression and movement for development purposes (calling it a “progression plan” is more appropriate because some movement options in the plan should include stretch project assignments, lateral transfers, and job rotations).
  • Each participant has a written individualized development, challenge, and learning plan. (Individual plans allow the employee to self-guide their own progress).
  • Uses multiple sources in selecting individuals for inclusion in the plan. (This increases the likelihood that a “less obvious” candidate will be included in the plan).
  • People on the plan are told they are on it. This transparency also allows excluded individuals to challenge their omission.
  • The plan provides direct rewards and recognizes managers who support the plan. Rewards and promotions for managers should be based on their record of successfully developing individuals that are eventually included on the plan. Managers should also be rewarded for having their current direct reports placed on the plan, as well as for periodically releasing and not “hoarding” their employees on the plan.
  • The plan includes an element to “retain” and improve individuals who remain on the plan but who have not been periodically moved or promoted.
  • It includes a “Right Job” movement element. (Right Job movement means that the plan not only speeds up the movement into jobs but it also ensures that the position includes the appropriate or “right” elements that fit the candidates development needs (i.e., right manager, right motivators, right time, right team, etc.)
  • It includes external candidates to spur competition (having external candidates included in the succession plan can put pressure on developing employees to improve beyond normal expectations).

This concludes part one of this series. In the next part, the focus will shift away from metrics relating to program operations to more strategic measures of succession planning output or success.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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