Succession Planning: The Essential Tool for a Strong and Stable Culture You Are Likely Missing

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Culture can be the engine of an organization’s success – or drive it to obsolescence. Aligning an entire organization with the same set of values and beliefs is no small feat – and starts and ends with leadership. Leaders set an organization’s direction and expectations for stakeholders’ experiences – from employees to customers.

Understandably, leadership turnover can weaken the stability and strength of your culture. Each change in leadership increases the likelihood that unity around shared goals and standards will falter. With roughly 40 percent of leaders (including both internal promotions and external hires) leaving before they reach 18 months tenure, this is a very real threat to building and sustaining your vision and values. What’s more, the higher the level of leadership the greater the risk of failure and potential damage to your culture.

Setting Leaders Up For Success

Without established programs in place where leaders are continually developed to reach the next level of leadership, it is not surprising almost half of all new leaders stumble.

Why are close to half of newly appointed leaders failing to make it more than a year and a half in their new roles? Based on research, new leaders fail primarily because they attempt to lead in ways that are not aligned with the culture – closely followed by a lack of teamwork with staff and peers (which is also directly attributed to culture).

How can organizations set leaders up for success to lead true to the organization’s core values and vision? A prime opportunity is to create and enact a succession planning process that develops leaders both functionally and culturally. To this point, only 30 percent of companies use succession planning, and only 20 percent of that group feel they do succession planning well[1]. It’s important to keep in mind that succession planning involves a) identifying leaders with the potential for growth, and b) developing them for new roles to preserve continuity of leadership and allow for stable growth of the organization.

Most succession plans stop at identifying high potentials and leave development to chance. When development is initiated, the majority of the time it:

  • focuses only on top executives only
  • is not a formal system, therefore development and evaluation do not occur on an established schedule
  • lacks quantitative ratings and metrics that can be tracked and analyzed to understand gaps in leadership skills and the number of promotable employees by position
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Succession Plans

To best support leaders, and build cultural alignment, leaders can be developed with succession plans using a leadership model built on the organization’s cultural values. This model can include the five broad areas of leading:

  1. Self-Leadership. Showing discipline and maturity, and acting with honorable character and disciplined action.
  2. People-Leadership. Earning the respect and trust of followers and molding them into a high performance team.
  3. Business.  Understanding how the organization is successful and ensuring consistent standards.
  4. Results.  Analyzing information and enacting effective strategies to reach intended results.
  5. Vision.  Creating and communicating a destination for the future and developing the organization’s culture.

Each of these areas can be infused with the organization’s culture. For example, if your company is focused on becoming the number one beloved brand in the eyes of your stakeholders, then Results Leadership should include specific areas of accountability relevant to each position and level of leadership. Senior leaders will likely have broader responsibilities in this area (e.g., “awareness of the competition,”) while junior managers will have more specific responsibilities related to the day-to-day experience of customers and employees.

Succession planning for each position should also include specific job functions that must be mastered at each level and what is required to advance to the next level. Specific education and job requirements (e.g., certifications, training programs) should also be communicated for each position. This allows all leaders and high potentials to clearly understand what must be mastered in their current role and what needs to be learned and accomplished to advance to the next level of leadership.

With clear standards in place for each leadership level and position, the next step is to ensure employees receive feedback and development that supports the leadership model.

Setting a quarterly or biannual schedule for evaluating employees and sticking to it can support steady growth and mastery. This not only benefits the organization, but also allows you to see how many employees are ready to be promoted to the next level. You can also analyze strengths and opportunities across employees by functional and cultural competencies. For example, you might discover department managers score lowest in business acumen and can build programs to address this known area of opportunity. Importantly, a metrics driven succession planning process also creates a rewarding experience for participating employees as they can clearly see their progress and receive continual feedback. In fact, two of the primary motivators for retention and performance are providing challenging work and a clear path for growth.

Now the challenge becomes: How can your team consistently evaluate all leaders and high potentials on a regular basis? There are many potential solutions from paper-based processes and spreadsheet tracking to online tools designed specifically for succession planning.  Technology options are powerful tools for providing reports, charting the number of promotable leaders by position, and identifying strengths and opportunities within positions and levels.

Next Steps

In sum, one of the greatest opportunities to build your culture is to invest in the development of your leaders. Succession planning allows you to determine bench strength, build the most useful opportunities for development and growth, and support the success of leadership.  Succession planning also increases employee engagement and retention at all levels.  Check out our whitepaper to learn key strategies for retaining employees.

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Aligning the talent development and succession planning processes: don’t allow critical leadership talent to fall by the wayside.  Development and Learning in Organizations.  April, 2015.

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