Succession Planning – the Most Boring but Essential Process You Shouldn’t Avoid

Five people sitting in a meeting with a man resting his head on his hands

An effective succession plan supports two vital aspects of company success; namely, bench strength and team chemistry. If you have been involved in the succession planning process, you know that it can be boring, unless you’ve failed to do it. That’s when it gets exciting, all hands are scrambled, and strategic initiatives tabled in the rush to fill, and sometimes refill, a key vacancy.

The “what-if,” future orientation, and detail of an effective succession planning process helps explain why company leaders tend to put it off or pay it scant attention until it is too late. How late is too late? In my experience, preparing for the replacement of a C-level leader with anything less than a year’s notice, or a team leader with anything less than a two month window before exit qualifies as “too late.” The downside of having not planned rarely has to do with identifying the necessary skills; instead, the problem is typically identifying fit, especially for C-level positions.

The challenge lies in getting an accurate read on a candidate’s soft skills; particularly, his or her “fit” with the team and the many pieces that make up a company’s culture. While there are helpful tools available for assessing fit (planned structured interviewing, personality and behavioral assessments) there is no substitute for the insights gained from having worked with a candidate over an extended period of time. When it comes to outside hires, this edge obviously disappears, and while interviews and assessments provide some insight, they cannot replace the confidence inherent in direct experience with a candidate.

While it’s considerably easier to evaluate the fit of an internal candidate, it can still be challenging when the move is to a different team or involves a whole new set of responsibilities. Effective succession planning takes time and, well, planning. Unfortunately, when it comes to succession to key positions, time is the enemy in that it can leave you with no option other than crisis management. And, as is often the case when decisions are made under pressure, mistakes will be made.

Two Scenarios

In the first scenario, an experienced and obviously successful manager is hired from the outside to be an Area Manager for a good-sized restaurant company. The COO, Director of Operations, and the District Manager have gone outside because they concluded that “fresh blood” was needed, and that there were no viable internal candidates among their many General Managers who could step up to the job. In this situation, “fresh blood” is often a comforting excuse for not having done the homework of creating a viable succession plan for all key positions. Upon announcement of the new Area Manager’s hiring, five General Managers jump to a competitor with two of them stepping into Area Manager positions.

The newly hired Area Manager has lots of credibility with the Operations Team due to the glowing report provided by the recruiter and a track record of getting things done and achieving results. She comes in and to no one’s surprise, does what a lot of new Multi-Unit Managers do: Cleans house by replacing five out of ten GMs in her area with GMs from her prior employer. Eighteen months later, the area is off track and she is summarily terminated by the Operations Team. If you were able to dig deeply into the reasons for her demise, you would not find “lack of skills” on the list. Instead, what you would discover is that she did not “fit” the puzzle called culture.

Looking back on the fiasco, what happened was inevitable. The Area Manager had come from a different culture – one that was top-down – and was hired to lead a different culture – one that was collegial and team-oriented. Rather than working to fit into the existing culture that had been built and tested over the years, she tried her best to bend it to suit her own beliefs and values and, by so doing, learned a lesson that many managers learn the hard way: culture eats change for lunch.

In the second scenario, an experienced and successful restaurant General Manager is promoted to Area Manager from within the company. He’s excited about his new opportunity, feels he has earned it, and is motivated by the vote of confidence his promotion represents. He works hard to earn the respect of his new team and demonstrate that he is the right guy for the job.

He’s been with the company for many years and feels a keen sense of commitment to its success. Like many of the people he works with, he has followed a clear path from his entry-level job to his new responsibility thanks to the company’s practice of communicating each job’s requirements, salary, and how promotion decisions are made.

His peers are happy for him as there is no mystery to individual success and, therefore, no sense of being unfairly treated. What he has experienced is the boredom – and extreme clarity – of an effective succession planning process. (If you would like to see this kind of program in action, check out Waffle House’s website.)

Which scenario would you rather be part of: One that’s a bit iffy and seems arbitrary or one that makes clear what it takes to move up in the company? Most people would say that they would rather be part of the second scenario and for pretty much the same reason: The second scenario represents real opportunity in a company that grows its own – and no surprises about who succeeds.

As these scenarios indicate, succession planning is more than boxes on a chart. It’s also attending to the future of a company and the details of creating opportunity for those who have earned it. Thus, succession planning is worrying today for the future you want tomorrow. At its best, it’s a cultural “insurance policy” that guarantees important aspects of a company’s heritage are maintained at the same time that it puts some meat on the meaning of merit and opportunity. It’s also an exercise in “peace of mind” for senior leaders in that it identifies and ensures the development of the next several generations of leaders before they are needed.

How Does It Work?

Succession planning starts with a complete understanding of what performance in each role involves.  This can reach beyond today’s performance expectations to include what you need from the role in the future. Based on this shared understanding of performance, competencies, or clusters of skills, knowledge, and behaviors, required to effectively fulfill the roles of key positions (now and in the future) are defined in detail.

Next, a roadmap is created whereby employees are assessed on their current abilities, provided opportunities to develop critical skills, and prepared for more responsibility. Importantly, the competencies and roadmap should be infused with your culture’s core beliefs and values.  Taking this critical step often forces a senior team to answer the question: Who are we and what do we stand for? While the specific details of creating an effective succession planning strategy are beyond the scope of the current discussion, the key message is not: If you haven’t thought about the future of your company and the skills it needs in order to ensure a smooth and predictable path to success, you are needlessly mortgaging its future.

To avoid this fate, consistent evaluation, feedback, and development of your organization in line with a culture and strategy-driven succession plan is essential.  By starting with a clear vision for performance and your culture, you can build leaders for an exciting and profitable future.

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