Organizational Effectiveness

Sculpting a Successor for your Organization


All organizations - Large or small need to think about succession planning and the need to create a formal leadership succession program

The transition of key leadership roles can be sensitive and often results in having to make difficult decisions. An outgoing CEO can leave large shoes to fill, potentially impacting an organization productivity, success and momentum. All organizations should be cognizant of the inevitable – that leadership will change and change is constant! The fact of the matter is all organizations – large or small need to think about succession planning and need to create a formal leadership succession program.

However, Stephen A Miles, a managing partner at a leading executive search firm says most organizations don’t get the process right.

One reason it’s all so difficult is because transitions historically have not been well done. When there’s an internal succession, too often the outgoing CEO has had the largest–or only–influence on the process. He (or she) has too often made one of two mistakes, either choosing someone in his own likeness when what the company really needed was someone different, or choosing someone of lesser stature to preserve his own legacy. When a board has been able wrest control of the succession from the CEO, it too often has instantly gone outside to recruit someone from another company. That is often an overcorrection. Very able candidates may exist inside. And they may present much less of a risk than an outsider.

Over the last couple of decades, a large number of organizations worldwide have started investing in leadership development and succession planning programs to ensure a smooth transition of their top talent.

Marshall Goldsmith author of Succession: Are You Ready? and an executive coach outlines 4 practical ideas on how to get more impact from your organization’s succession planning efforts.

1. Change the name of the process to from Succession Planning to Succession Development.

Plans do not develop anyone — only development experiences develop people. We see many companies put more effort and attention into the planning process than they do into the development process. Succession planning processes have lots of to-do’s — forms, charts, meetings, due dates and checklists. They sometimes create a false sense that the planning process is an end in itself rather than a precursor to real development.

2. Measure outcomes, not process

This change of emphasis is important for several reasons. First, executives pay attention to what gets measured and what gets rewarded. If leadership development is not enough of a priority for the company to establish goals and track progress against those goals, it will be difficult to make any succession planning process work. Second, the act of engaging with senior executives to establish these goals will build support for succession planning and ownership for leadership development. Third, these results will help guide future efforts and mid-course corrections.

The metrics a company could establish for Succession Development might include goals like the percent of executive level vacancies that are actually filled with an internal promotion vs. an external hire, or the percent of promotions that actually come from the high-potential pool. Too often, we find companies measure only the percent of managers that had completed succession plans in place.

3. Keep it simple.

We sometimes find companies adding excessively complex assessment criteria to the succession planning process in an effort to improve the quality of the assessment. Some of these criteria are challenging even for behavioral scientists to assess, much less the average line manager. Since the planning process is only a precursor to focus the development, it doesn’t need to be perfect. More sophisticated assessments can be built into the development process and administered by a competent coach.

4. Stay realistic.

Following are two classic examples how succession plans may lack realism:

The head of engineering is a high performing leader who has the potential to be COO. She has always been in an engineering role. If she had sales experience, she would be even more ready to be the COO so her development plan is written to include a job move to be head of sales. However, this company would never take the risk of putting someone without sales experience in the top sales job — so her development plan perpetually says, “move to a sales job” even though that will never happen.

The CFO is a high performing leader who has passed all the assessment criteria to be a high potential, ready-now candidate for the CEO job. He is told he is the top candidate. However, the CEO can’t stand the guy, and as a result, he will never get the job as long as that CEO has a say in the matter.

Organizations should invest in developing leaders to ensure succession development. They should ideally align experiential learning with the organization’s people strategy to ensure that their high potentials are linked to the most challenging work in their organization. Assigning each high potential employee to an executive sponsor (link back) who is responsible for their progress is essential to ensure ownership and accountability, as cross-functional sponsor assignments help in sculpting a stronger leader.

Succession development allows organizations to focus on the overall business and supports the mapping of a blueprint for top leadership. The process prepares leaders for greater responsibilities and in the process ensures the long-term viability of an organization.

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