Many executive teams plan for the proverbial worst-case scenario that would occur if a key leader was "hit by a bus" or "won the lottery" and immediately retired before the next workday. (Note: one of my clients began using the phrase "Hit by the lottery" as a tongue-in-cheek phrase, that I now use). While this is a common reason for "succession planning", it is hardly the only or even the best reason to engage in this important talent management strategy.
Done well, succession planning doesn't just plan for replacement but creates a bench of engaged, talented, well-known high potential leaders who are ready, willing, and able to hit the ground running, fill gaps, and continually improve processes, people, and technology. Done well, the individuals and their organizations are also aligned about the individuals' greatest talents, values, and aspirations, and about the organizational needs that exist. And there exists a several potential "matches" of individuals and positions that could be made, for any reason, planned or unplanned. And lastly, done well, succession planning isn't just about promotion of a high potential into one specific position (though that does and can occur) but promotes an in-depth learning process for both individuals and leaders that allows for flexibility, best use of leadership strengths, and maximum engagement and performance for all involved.
Our experience, however, is that while succession planning is often done, there are also unintended consequences and impacts that occur, such as:
- They are no good, internal long-term candidates inside the organization. And, bringing in an "outsider" has historically failed. So, organizations have to choose between an experienced professional who may or may not "fit" in the organization, or an untested executive with great potential but less real-world success. Neither is a great option.
- There are several high potential candidates, all of whom are valuable to the organization. However, after one is placed into an actual position, the others leave, shortly thereafter, feeling passed over, unappreciated, or downright hurt/angry over the choice. In this case, several months/years of investment into the unchosen candidates gets wasted.
- The organization is certain they have the perfect leader for the perfect position, but the leader appears less-then-enthused when offered an actual position that comes open. This often comes as a surprise to the organization that their candidates didn't jump at such a great opportunity. OR the candidate is mystified why they were offered such a position that clearly wasn't what they had been hoping for.
Why does this occur? There are several serious inherent challenges in succession planning that must be accepted and managed. These are:
- A "great fit" between a person and a position is multi-faceted and is always an exercise in prediction. That is, for engagement and job performance to be maximized, individuals must possess an in-depth and nuanced knowledge of their talents/skills and true purpose/drivers for the careers. And they must know enough about the needs of the position and/or organization to predict if that role matches who they are and what they want. Some leaders have done this work, some need to do more.
- Succession planning is a long term, complex talent management process that needs time to produce results—and there will always be some misses along the way.
- Finding alignment between the individual's perspectives of themselves and the requirements of the job AND the organization's perspectives on the individual and the job is harder than it looks and often undiscussed. That is, organizations believe they know the aspirations/best use of the individual, but they do not explicitly confirm this with the individual.
- Timing of openings that match an individual career timetable do not always line up. Some high potentials are impatient for their time to shine. Organizations are unable (and/or unwilling) to make promises when an opportunity might arise. (e.g., an experienced, valued leader may not be ready to retire, even if their successor is!).
These challenges cannot be avoided completely. They are part of realities of succession planning and the leadership journey. Leaders and organizations each have to look out for their own interests and weigh the risks and benefits of an often unpredictable and/or "unpromisable" future.
The Bailey Group has worked with many organizations who are embarking on succession planning or upgrading their current processes. We have seen many organizations reduce risks or avoid these common pitfalls. We would love to work with you to help you see what you can do to make your process even better.