Successful Succession Planning: Managing Transparency And Risk
Organizations go through many annual or other regular processes — strategic planning, engagement surveys, financial reporting and more. One similarly significant and strategic process that is sometimes neglected is succession planning. The popular TV show Succession shows an extreme version of what can go wrong, but with a little planning, most organizations can avoid that level of drama.
The benefits of succession planning range from the individual — better employee and leader readiness when it is time for a transition — to the organizational: top talent retention. While retaining talent has been a priority for many organizations for years, there is more upheaval in the global market for talent now as people reassess their priorities and values after 18-plus months of work during the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are several tools that can aid organizations and executives in conducting succession planning. Assessments are one. Assessments like TALENTx7 Learning Agility can be incredibly useful in determining potential, which for the purposes of succession planning is defined as the interest and ability to take on bigger or broader roles. The nine box grid is another commonly used tool that maps talent by performance and potential. Regardless of the tools used, succession planning helps identify high-potential employees within the organization. It can also be used to identify talent gaps for leaders who have no internal successor who will be ready within the defined time frame — now or in one, three or five years.
Many organizations get all the steps in succession planning right up to this point. Where they may falter is the implementation of development plans and other work to ensure the identified employees are ready to advance when the role becomes available. Readiness factors can vary by role and organization, but in general, they include the right types and breadth of functional experience as well as people and cultural leadership skills.
Organizations also grapple with whether to share the results of succession planning with the identified successors. While I have a bias toward transparency, there are risks to telling employees they are on the list or not. Here are a few potential downsides of sharing the results of succession planning and ways to address them:
The identified successor isn’t interested in the future role. A highly talented employee may feel misunderstood or undervalued if they are identified for a role that doesn’t align with their career goals. This gives the organization time to identify a better successor and it creates an opportunity to reassess and support a more desirable career path for the original successor.
Ambitious talent who weren’t identified on the succession plan feel left out. If a goal of succession planning is to retain top talent, organizations could be jeopardizing their relationships with talented employees who didn’t make the plan, either due to lack of readiness, lack of slots on the plan or other factors. It’s no time to lose these employees. To mitigate a sense of being overlooked, leaders can spend more time on development conversations with all employees. I advocate for regular, frequent conversations about career goals, skill development and organizational opportunities. Research from Korn Ferry also supports this approach.
The timing isn't right for both parties. High-potential talent may be ready for their next opportunity before the organization has a spot for them. While they may be encouraged by being part of the succession plan, a hypothetical three-year window for advancement may not align with their career goals or their own sense of what they are ready and able to take on. Leaders will need to engage their active listening skills to understand what will keep these employees engaged and within the organization through the planning period. Special projects and new responsibilities would be a typical part of a readiness development plan and can also be used to demonstrate investment in these eager employees.
Business changes mean an identified role is no longer needed or has changed during the succession period. A high-potential employee is told of their place in the succession plan following the planning session. They progress through their development plan, but when the time comes to advance, the organization decides the role is no longer needed. This can damage the relationship between the successor and leadership and erode trust. Leaders should be prepared to have transparent conversations about what has changed in the business and share the growth opportunities that are still available to the employee.
Despite these risks — the likelihood of which vary by organization — transparency about planning and opportunities can build trust, credibility and engagement.
If you are still on the fence about the value of succession planning, I will leave you with an example of the positive outcomes I witnessed when facilitating succession planning conversations for a group of leaders in the Asia Pacific region. The group convened in Singapore to discuss all manager-and-above employees and review their nine-box rating and readiness for future roles. Leaders had a chance to hear from their peers who offered fresh insights about the employees and their interactions. As a group, they were able to identify specific developmental experiences, help raise employees’ profiles and find stretch opportunities to prepare them for future roles. It was a great, collaborative process to be part of because the leaders worked together to plan for the advancement of their teams. After all, there is motivational value in having something specific to work toward and having highly engaged, talented employees is rewarding for the individual and the organization.
*This article originally appeared on Forbes.