How to build resilience to uncertainty with more robust and agile Succession Planning

Posted on September 25, 2020 at 11:01 AM

9 box grid succession planning

The presence of COVID-19 is continuing to challenge us all. Whilst we have been deepening our thoughts regarding Succession Planning over the year, the ability of industry and government to manage organisations and people has never come under such immediate and polarising pressure. There seems to be no end in sight for these levels of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Traditional approaches to Succession Planning have been HR led. HR would carry out an analysis of critical posts, identify who currently occupies those posts and then form a view on who else would be able to carry out those roles if they became vacant. All straightforward stuff. However, it often led to spreadsheets or powerpoint decks full of duplicated names, questionable decisions and, because the data rarely got sanity-checked or cleansed, the inclusion of employees who had long left. HR would then spend not an inconsiderable time creating nine-box grids of those people in an attempt to make sense of this often erroneous information.

It’s easy to see why Succession Planning can cause eyes to roll – with the example above what’s the outcome in business terms? Arguably little more than an intellectual convenience of having recognisable names in boxes and a sense that this effort is over for another year.

Some have suggested that as this practice seems to achieve very little, yet often costs so much, succession planning should be abandoned.

Not so fast. This would mean that we run our organisations ‘blind’ to the impact of the normal comings and goings of people, leave ourselves unprepared for these difficult and unpredictable times, and fail to be able to answer questions from the C-Suite such as ‘Who would be capable and willing to relocate to run our new operation in Country X’? If HR can’t step up and answer those questions, then it’s easy to see why a cost-conscious CFO would support the outsourcing of HR to a lower cost economy, or relegate to simply an admin function.

So if we return to the example above, what is apparent is that the process seems to have very little engagement with the employees themselves and is arguably suffering from an exercise carried out at 50,000ft with little information from the ground. For small and senior populations, there’s often very little problem with this – the executives in question are typically well known, there is plenty of assessment data about them and engagement levels are high in that their career aspirations are likely to be known and reviewed on a regular basis.

We view Succession Planning and Career Planning as essentially flip sides of the same coin – they both concern themselves with an employee’s future but from a different perspective (organisation vs. employee) and scale (one or almost everyone).

More recent evolutions in Performance Management and Employee Engagement have also focussed HR’s mind on the ‘Career Conversation’, a key element in Career Planning. So with this obvious interconnectedness, and the drivers for better retention, lower recruitment costs, higher productivity, and generally healthier organisational cultures, why do we believe that rolling out a top down Succession Planning process to the masses is a simple cut, copy and paste exercise?

Let’s sidestep discussions around talent metrics, ‘high potential for what’ and bias and leave them for another day – let’s focus now on the leadership of Succession Planning. After all, who leads an activity will typically determine its outcomes and benefactors.

succession planning

So what does an ‘Employee-led’ Succession Planning approach ‘look like’?

The first key concept to embrace is ‘Everything’s in it for them’ – this is an employee-centric activity designed and positioned to help them develop and grow and realise their ambitions. Doesn’t sound much like Succession Planning does it? And rightly so. It’s conversationally based, typically includes a manager or mentor, is positively framed and – importantly - recorded where it can be revised, revisited and updated. It includes considerations around mobility both geographical (if that applies to your business) and functional in terms of cross functional moves or job rotations.

For those organisations with more structure around roles, it could even include the selection of possible future roles or career steps together with a view as to any personal skills gaps. So clearly there’s a benefit for an employee – many view career opportunities and the discussion around them as motivating and engaging. For the manager, they get some insight into the personal motivations of the employee in their team (side note – wouldn’t it make so much sense to task every manager to identify at least 1 or 2 successors for themselves as part of their responsibilities? Why don’t we do that? Something along the lines of – no successors, no bonus?!). The organisation would have a much better view of the aspirations of their employees and might be able to carry out some simple redeployment or internal (and cheaper) recruitment activity. Sounds like a win.

So what does a Manager-led Succession Planning approach ‘look like’?

This is effectively an oversight overlay – the manager is there to encourage the conversation, even stimulate it. For many employees, envisaging an alternative future role or a career is not an easy or even comfortable thing to do, and may need some encouragement. The other side of this is, of course, is that the manager will also have some opinions about the employee. Succession Planning typically concerns itself with notions of ‘potential’ and ‘flight risk’ – there’s nothing wrong with that, but our experience in this field suggests that managers certainly need help in understanding these concepts and how to apply them without (too much) bias.

HR has a key role to play in helping managers with the whole ‘talent agenda’ that may be (likely) unfamiliar territory – it probably didn’t get covered in the Appraisal course they got sent on. It can be helpful to use ‘talent categories’ – these are short descriptions of essentially different stereotypes of employees – yes we are all unique, but also share some common characteristics that can be helpful. What we call these talent categories’ is loaded territory – we can’t all be ‘Future Leaders’ and ‘High Impact Professionals’ - even if it does sound attractive!

So what could HR led Succession Planning ‘look like’?

For a start, let’s call it Succession Management – plans are one thing, but managing the process to outcomes contributes far more than just a static plan, and moves us away from thinking that once we’ve produced the obligatory nine box grid , then we’re done. So with HR in the lead, what outcomes should be our focus?

Employees engaged in their careers and development
Managers enabling career conversations, understanding their people and providing insight that provides opportunities for growth and succession
Good data about people and aspirations leading to manageable organisational risk and active succession through the business.

So let’s ask our managers to do more and send them a form or spreadsheet to complete about each of their people. Well that’s a miss straightaway and a common story. It’s the sort if response you’d expect from IT as if this were IT led. In HR we can appreciate the interconnected drivers of career conversations, engagement and retention, so let’s use these levers to deliver our outcomes.

So rather than ask our managers to do more with substandard tools, we should work towards supporting them to be both better managers and crystal clear on the expectations the organisation has of managers. A key part of this is to enable managers to have a coaching orientation to how they view their direct reports and others who look to them for direction. Asking good questions, being open, suspending judgement are important skills that underpin effective manager-employee relationships and it is the strength of this relationship that impacts employee engagement and ultimately productivity. We know, but sometimes overlook, that almost all our OD-related efforts will only be successfully executed through the actions of others and in organisations with any form of hierarchy, that means through managers.

Our next consideration should be Cadence. We want up to date information, but it doesn’t need to be real-time. We’d like regular career conversations, but not so frequent that they become meaningless. We want some predictability of the information stream, but not create a schedule to police, with all that this means for how we are perceived. So, in your organisation, what is the ‘natural cadence’? For example, is bi-monthly a recognised time-period where things happen such as ‘town hall’ meetings, performance reviews, audits, employee work groups and so on?

We need to find ways to integrate this HR led activity into Business As Usual. Think carefully though – you are looking for really close alignment of people and purpose with this cadence selection. For example, we’ve all seen, or have agreed to, extra random questions, boxes to fill in or ticks appear on appraisal forms, on-boarding documents and surveys that just don’t belong and are there for convenience. Experience shows that these are a simple hijacking of an existing process which leads to the devaluation of both.

succession planning template

Even more important now is the consideration of the tools we provide managers and employees to facilitate succession planning discussions. Never has our attention in the workplace been so captivated by a screen so small as the one we hold in our palms. Never have we had an influence on our expectations of user experience of software as we have now, driven by our day to day use of software apps in our lives. In HR, never have we had to consider that people will be using devices different from the devices (laptops etc.) we might use to create these forms and spreadsheets.

So whilst we have aligned some of the elements of Succession Planning cadence with purpose and people, we must also align the mechanism with ‘place’. As our workforces become more remote, we must ask ourselves “Where are they and what workplace equipment do they have (e.g., a smartphone, tablet, wi-fi and so on)?. The only viable answer to this is an on-line app or website that is quick and easy to use, secure and multi-audience.

Finally, and to deliver on HR outcomes, ensuring that our ‘talent models’ are relevant, discourage bias and are evidence-based will help us make the right decisions around learning and development, succession and, importantly, enable the business to manage risk. These uncertain times are driving more and more organisations to engage with reducing their 'people-risk' with more robust and agile approaches to succession management.

Please do get in touch if you would like to have a chat about succession management or take a quick tour of our Succession Planning software here if you think it helpful.

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