The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

Why Can’t We Implement Succession?

Why Can’t We Implement Succession?

Oct 6, 2010

I can’t quite remember when it was, but on a recent Bill Kutik Radio Show, Bill mentioned, “One of the things that drives me crazy, is every survey that comes out, everyone says that Succession Planning is their top priority, and then the following year, the same survey states that nobody implemented it.”  Bill’s absolutely right, and I’ve started wondering exactly what is so hard about Succession Planning that with all the best intentions, we just can’t seem to get moving on that front of talent management.

I have a theory that there are a couple of pillars that make us unable to implement it.  First of all, there are core capabilities that need to be created before we can get Succession in place.  While we can often think of Succession as a stand alone process from the rest of talent management, Succession certainly needs a few ingredients to work.  Fist of all, we want to be able to create plans based on actual measurements rather than the reviewer’s subjective opinions which we know would result in a high probability of bias and be subject more to potential successors networking capabilities than job capabilities (although this may not be a terrible thing).  What we need are a few years worth of performance and competency data.  This means that to have a quantitative means of measuring probable successors, we’d like to see trends and trajectory.  This can go not only for internal candidates since external candidates often have measurable indicators that may be public.  The core problem however, is that not only do we need the basics of talent management intact, but we also would like to have a few years worth of data.

Second, there is a distinct manager capability that is far beyond that of other talent processes.  In performance management, our managers are asked to measure direct employees on a specified set of performance parameters.  When we talk about succession plans, we are often asking our executives to look at possible successors that they don’t directly work with today.  They look at the capabilities of each candidate, level those candidates across the multiple business units, look at total experience, expertise and capability, and then look at potential.  Succession or our executives is far more complex than performance is for our managers.  We have an expectation that we can put in software and a process, but once we come down to the actual planning process for implementation, we realize that this is far more complex and the expectations are far higher than anything we have done before.

Usually what we think will happen is that HR will run all sorts of reports that show possible successors for each role, and be able to analyze those candidates so that meaningful conversations can be had with the appropriate successors.  We think this because we don’t really believe that a bunch of executives is going to sift through complex, detailed data on each possible successor.  However, this also means that the business process for Succession Planning is more complex than just the analysis.  In performance, we have a pretty reliable expectation that managers can figure it out.  In Succession, we have every reason to believe that HR business partners and leaders are going to have a series of meetings with executives to reach a final understanding of what the succession landscape looks like – and most of this happens outside of software.

When we really get down to it, Succession probably really is our greatest want and need.  When we get down to it, Succession really is more complex than we expect it to be.  However, we need to get succession right.  If we think Succession is bad, wait until we get to topics like workforce mobility and areas that are so cross functional and multi-threaded that we have multiple HR organizations interacting with multiple business organizations.

4 comments

  1. Succession Planning is not hard, or it should not be. One problem is that we tend to make it to big and try to want it all. As you say we want a couple of years data. But do we really NEED that. No we can do without, with lower quality for sure but we can.

    Another problem is that we have a bunch of managers that we expect to do lots of stuff and succession is one among them. And then we believe that they will do accurate assessments all on their own. So the round table discussion is what I would say one of the two most important things to implement (CEO buy in and active participation being the other). By doing round table reviews of successors we end up getting aligned candidates and we also end up having managers discussing and they will over time get more aligned.

    So do Succession, but dont try to reach for the moon on the first year. Mt Everest is more than enough:-)

  2. Dubs, I just gave a presentation at an industry conference on this topic. Additional problems are those of perception. When you call it succession planning, it becomes less important, because plans are made for the future and executives have so many pressing issues right now that succession planning slides to the bottom, if not off, the agenda. I advocate succession management to reinforce to executives that this is a process than demands to be managed on a regular and ongoing basis. This is not a “once and done” process. The second issue is that too many executives don’t like to think about a future at the organization that does not include them. When HR, or anyone, comes in to talk about succession, it’s a lot like selling life insurance. They know they need it, but they don’t want to discuss it. One of the ways I sell it to senior executives is by showing them the high cost of not planning. Large dollar figures usually get their attention, and often they don’t realize the enormity of the risk of doing nothing.
    Thanks for the great post!
    Ron Katz

  3. I agree that succession planning doesn’t usually get adequately completed for the reasons you point out.

    There is an issue with using performance data alone in that it is historical, often related to a particular job, when what we really need is data that indicates potential.

    The use of assessments to rapidly generate, objective, reliable data that provides forward looking potential measures is something that can break the succession planning log jam.

    These potential scores combined with an organization’s job families; profiled using the same competency language, is the content that can unleash the vast power sitting dormant in Talent Management systems to kick start a succession culture and processes within an organization.

    Chris Clarke at SHL

  4. I would echo all the earlier comments … plus nobody really wants to contribute to the position where they are increasingly dispensible.

    I prefer to get managers to consider managing their “talent pools” where the emphasis is on creating stronger groups of operational people who are increasingly ready to “step up”.

    Managers actively add value to the “talent pool” by making sure their team members are increasing their formal qualifications, skills and experiences.

    It is far easier to sell the need to work actively to create a great team than to identify your successor.

    Managing the “talent pool” spreads risk too, with less possibility an identified “successor” leaves before you expect (taking lots of investment with them) and you have to start again. It also reduces the likelihood that you are planning for today when future needs may well be quite different.

    Any thoughts?

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