Ready or Not …It’s Going to Happen!

Ready-or-Not-Its-Going-to-Happen-Susan-BowenIt’s inevitable.  It happened to me.  And, if you stay in an organization long enough, it will happen to you.

Reflecting back to a few years ago, I received a telephone call with expected, but very sad news. “Our CEO has lost his long struggle with cancer.”  Shortly after hearing this news, the stark reality hit.  We had no one identified to assume the helm.  We knew that this dreaded day would happen … but we had failed to prepare for “next.”

Many organizations are in the same predicament.  Intellectually, we know that leaders move on – voluntarily and involuntarily.  We know we need to prepare for succession.  But how often do we replace succession planning with other priorities?  How often do we say, “We’ll get to that tomorrow”?

To those organizations that do not have a succession program in place, you are not alone.  Over the years, research has shown improvement in the numbers of organizations planning for future leadership succession, but the data still indicate that only about 25% of organizations in the United States have a formal succession plan in place.  This is a startling statistic considering that every organization (small or large – public, private, or nonprofit) has a need to plan for a seamless transition of leadership.

Why do we not identify and develop successors?  Many say that the process is too cumbersome, their organization is too small, or that they don’t have the resources to put toward the identification or the development.  For some, succession planning is an indication of one’s own mortality – and sometimes we just don’t want to face that inescapable fact.

I propose that we re-frame our thinking about identifying and developing successors and start taking action to prepare for the inevitable.

Succession planning is a partnership. 

As in all effective relationships, succession only works with two willing partners (the employee and the organization).  The first task, then, is to look at employee desire.

  • Regarding each employee’s career goals – is there a desire to gain more responsibility, oversee staff, and move up the organizational ladder?  (Notice money is left out of this conversation.  For of course, everyone will say yes to a higher salary!)
  • What is the employee’s vision of the future?
  • What are his/her one-year goals?  Five-year goals?

This information gathering exercise is designed 1) for the employee to think through and communicate goals and desires and 2) for management to gain insight into the employee’s future hopes and dreams.

Succession planning connects desire, exceptional performance, AND potential. ~ Susan Bowen Tweet this!

Desire comes from the employee.

Performance is determined through the review of job history and sustained results.

  • Does this person produce results that consistently exceed the operating, technical and professional output expected from a person in their current position?
  • Does this person demonstrate excellent leadership ability (such as establishing and communicating strategic direction, inspiring and enabling staff to perform at the highest standards, championing change, and focusing on sustainable results)?
  • Does this person achieve results in a way that always builds and maintains constructive working relationships with many people?
  • Is this person oriented toward total business results, not just focused on the success of his/her own area?

Many organizations tend to focus their succession pipelines on the exceptional performers without looking at employee potential or employee career goals.  You have seen this happen.

A person is promoted to a position because he is an exceptional, operationally talented performer in his current role.  Desire and potential are not addressed in the vetting process.  In his new role he fails to build the relationships and create the vision and strategy needed to move the company forward.  He is removed from his position due to lack of desire and potential.

Shock waves are felt throughout the organization.  It is even worse when the person is the CEO.

Realize that potential identification is more “art” than “science.”  Rarely do you have objective data to review.  Some assessments assist in identifying potential, but it is also helpful to rely on observations of the candidate’s interactions.

  • Does this person exhibit broad and deep technical and interpersonal skills?
  • Does this person currently demonstrate leadership skills that are expected at the next higher organizational level?
  • Does this person regularly work at building new skills and abilities?
  • If a people manager, does this person exhibit managerial skills that are expected at the next highest organizational level?
  • Is there a “fire in the belly” that will indicate the employee’s willingness to reach for new challenges?

Use a review team process to identify those who can lead the organization into the future (enterprise talent).  Assess the desire, performance, and potential of each candidate brought forward.  Keep emotion out of the decision-making.  This is not a popularity contest.  You are building the future of your company.

Consider these Review Team rules-of-thumb:

  • Limit the number of enterprise talent to less than 20% of your total employee population
  • Prolonged disagreement about a candidate indicates that he/she may not be enterprise talent at this time.
  • The CEO owns and stewards the process.

Succession planning requires development of enterprise talent.

Some organizations believe that development creates an inordinate strain on resources (in both dollars and time away from the job).  Note, however, that organizational leadership readiness will only be achieved through development.

Bob Eichinger and Michael Lombardo, former associates of the Center for Creative Leadership and the founders of Lominger International (A Korn/Ferry Company), recommend a 70% (on-the-job experiences) – 20% (coaching and feedback) – 10% (facilitated instruction) approach to development.

Considering this approach, the opportunities to develop are limitless.  The talent may:

  • Manage projects,
  • Supervise new teams,
  • Work in a new department,
  • Sit on a steering committee outside of the organization,
  • Volunteer for a leadership position at a nonprofit,
  • Present to an organization’s advisory board,
  • Participate in the due diligence process for a pending merger,
  • Swap jobs with another for a period of time (at least 6 months),
  • Take on a global assignment,
  • Transfer to a new location, etc.

This development is conducted in the regular course of doing business.  The benefits are realized as 1) the enterprise talent gains new knowledge, skills, abilities, and leadership aptitude and 2) the organization gains a real-time view of how the talent is adapting to potentially high-stress situations.   This actual experience far outweighs that of a simulated classroom environment.

If you have not entered the succession-planning ring, I suggest you take the plunge.  Start simple. Identify and develop the talent for the leadership needs of tomorrow.

Get ready!  It’s going to happen.

About Susan Bowen

Susan Bowen has a passion for helping people become more effective leaders. As the founder and principal consultant of Leadership Elements, she works with individuals, teams, and organizations to develop their leadership capability and capacity. Past experience working with a number of for-profit and governmental organizations has provided her with the expertise to diagnose needs and develop customized programs to meet her clients’ objectives. Susan is also known for her meeting facilitation, writing, and speaking acumen.

Connect with Susan Bowen

Comments

  1. This shift in mindset from succession planning as a top down exercise to succession planning as a partnership is a crucial one if succession planning is ever going to be embraced as the critical practice it is the future sustainability of any organization. Embracing this shift may just be the key to ensuring that talent development in service of the future of any enterprise is a way of life rather than a task on the annual to do list that all too easily postponed until it is too late. Excellent food for thought Susan!

    • Thank you, Susan. Yes – the challenge is incorporating succession planning as one of an organization’s mainstream activities – on an equal footing with strategic planning, business development, etc. I look forward to hearing about those organizations that see talent development as a critical piece of their daily operations.

      All the best,

      Susan

  2. It’s a scary thought indeed that so little organisations have a succession plan in place and worse still even if they didn’t have a plan, many are not even nurturing up and coming talent that may be more likely to take over the reins in times of anothers departure.

    I recently blogged about this topic myself http://www.uqpower.com.au/_blog/UQ_Power_Posts/post/How_fertile_are_your_leaders/ where I discussed the need for more fertile leaders – that is ones that are highly reproductive and seem to continually birth and produce other, new leaders.

    We need leaders to understand the importance of not only demonstrating leadership but also coaching others, coming up the ranks, to live and lead well. In my post I suggest some questions to stop and consider including:
    - Does your company have a leadership pipeline expansion plan?
    -.Do your identified future leaders have actual demonstrated leadership competence?
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this subject!

    • Hello, Heidi. Yes – we are of the same mind. I enjoyed reading your post (thank you for including the link). I agree that what made companies successful in the past will not survive in the future. So yes, companies are happy with today’s results, people, productivity, etc. But – without a focus toward the future leadership, tomorrow’s progress will stall out.

      I would love for all of us to band together and create a “succession planning revolution”! Those companies who hop on board will flourish in the years to come.

      Thank you for your comments!

      All the best,

      Susan

  3. Hi Susan

    I loved this post for its straightforward articulation of a significant issue ~ the absence of succession planning and/or real talent management ~ that I’ve observed for over 35 years in the public sector here in England, set alongside some great suggestions as to by whom with what and how that succession planning vacuum might be filled!

    You make some rock solid points … and “Start simple. Identify and develop the talent for the leadership needs of tomorrow.” needs to be listened to by many a CEO I can think of! Frode’s thought on talent being seen as competition particularly resonated with my experience … as well as Dave B’s point about who is it for ~ the individual or the organisation? Surely the focus has to be both? The key for me in all this is about identifying your leadership needs for the future … and making sure you have a plan in place should they emerge sooner than you anticipated they would!

    Great post Susan ~ thanks for sharing on and resurfacing an excellent topic!

    Kind regards

    John

    • Hi John. Thank you for your comments. I have seen the disruption that occurs when there is no planning for who will fill a void. It is quite unsettling – for employees and shareholders alike. In many companies, the “heads down” approach to the day-to-day operational management of a company wins out over planning for tomorrow.

      This type of planning is so easy to put off until tomorrow – comparable to exercise … we know we need to do it – but, “mañana.” Hmmmm – we may have a new way to reframe this … the benefits of succession planning for the organization is similar to the benefits of exercise for the body.

      All the best,

      Susan

  4. Hi Susan,

    What a great blog.
    This raises a number of thoughts:
    Why don’t organisations (including my own) have a plan for the sudden departure of their leadership?
    Why isn’t talent development higher up the corporate agenda?
    Is leadership talent development for the benefit of the individual or the organisation?

    Thanks for the stimulus

    Dave

    • Hi Dave. Thank you for your thought provoking questions. And what a great way for each organization to begin their conversations regarding succession planning. By answering these questions, organizations have the opportunity to uncover the truth about their priorities … and then the opportunity to shift those priorities for the benefit of the organization. I believe the conversations that surround these questions would be fascinating, eye opening, and in the end (hopefully) transformational.

      All the best,

      Susan

  5. Hi Susan

    You put your finger on a real weakness! A friend of mine says that the key job of a manager is to make sure his/her successor is ready. If more people did that, organisations would be more consistent, cultures would be based on coaching, only good things would follow.

    Instead of focussing on the next job, wouldn’t it be great if people focussed on their legacy? Maybe it takes a degree of age/maturity to do that, I know I didn’t for the first twenty years of my own career. But now I find that it is a wonderful coaching question that always leads to a great conversation.

    Thanks for posting such a valuable reminder!

    Warm wishes

    David

    • David – thank you for your thoughts. We have all seen situations where managers truly develop their teams and managers just “work” their teams. I often find that managers emulate those behaviors that they have seen. When organizations provide role models of great leaders, managers, coaches, mentors who open the “opportunity doors” to what could be, one sees and feels a different dynamic among the employees. Energy, innovation, productivity, excitement … results! (By the way – I agree with your friend!)

      All the best,

      Susan

  6. In some companies talents are considered as competition to the current leadership, not the best kind of leader obviously, but still it happens. Giving employees a career path will create safety and a lot of motivation, still so few companies create a path for their staff. I would love to have a mentor and training for a potential future role – it would be an easy way to keep me in the company and higly motivated. Good Post Susan on an important topic.

    • Thank you, Frode. Yes, acknowledging the importance of individual career paths for employees is such a motivator. Not every one wants to be CEO. (Not every one should be CEO.) But asking employees to express their desires/future goals – and working to help them achieve their goals – is such a contributor to employee engagement. And, as we know – engaged employees move companies forward.

      All the best,

      Susan

  7. Greg Towsley says:

    I worked for a great leader one time that didn’t ask “What are one-year goals? Five-year goals?” He asked “What is my job title on the day I retire?” This is a much more useful question and dialogue to have with an employee to develop them AND assist an organization with succession planning.

    • Hi Greg. What a great question! The answer does carve out a potential path for growth and development – the long view. The answer also provides a great opportunity for periodic check-ins that allow for “turns in the road.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      All the best,

      Susan

  8. Great post–succession planning is important at all levels of the organization. At some levels, in some companies, it appears that fear is the reason it is not done. “If I have a successor identified, then the company can drop me…” is an attitude that I’ve seen. That obviously means there is some deeper problem in the culture, but it often must be addressed first.

    • Thank you, Skip. Yes – I agree that fear does play a huge role in the willingness to identify and develop successors. As we have read in many of the blogathon posts, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That is never more true than in succession planning. The importance of the CEO and the executive team leading the effort with openness and transparency is key.

      All the best,

      Susan

  9. Thank you for shining the light on a weakness in my organization. I have too many roles at my firm at the age of 51. Additionally, I don’t have a session plan. This blob is the starter soup for my plan. What a great value!

    Tim Foster

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Beware the leadership void. This article offers three tips to help you help your organization prepare for leadership succession and the inevitable. (Ready or Not …It’s Going to Happen!  [...]

  2. [...] It’s inevitable. It happened to me. And, if you stay in an organization long enough, it will happen to you. Reflecting back to a few years ago, I received a telephone call with expected, but very sad news. “Our CEO has lost his long struggle with cancer.” Shortly after hearing this news, the stark reality hit. We had no one identified to assume the helm. We knew that this dreaded day would happen … but we had failed to prepare for “next.”Many organizations are in the same predicament. Intellectually, we know that leaders move on – voluntarily and involuntarily. We know we need to prepare for succession. But how often do we replace succession planning with other priorities? How often do we say, “We’ll get to that tomorrow”?To those organizations that do not have a succession program in place, you are not alone. Over the years, research has shown improvement in the numbers of organizations planning for future leadership succession, but the data still indicate that only about 25% of organizations in the United States have a formal succession plan in place. This is a startling statistic considering that every organization (small or large – public, private, or nonprofit) has a need to plan for a seamless transition of leadership.Why do we not identify and develop successors? Many say that the process is too cumbersome, their organization is too small, or that they don’t have the resources to put toward the identification or the development. For some, succession planning is an indication of one’s own mortality – and sometimes we just don’t want to face that inescapable fact.I propose that we re-frame our thinking about identifying and developing successors and start taking action to prepare for the inevitable. Succession planning is a partnership. As in all effective relationships, succession only works with two willing partners (the employee and the organization). The first task, then, is to look at employee desire.Regarding each employee’s career goals – is there a desire to gain more responsibility, oversee staff, and move up the organizational ladder? (Notice money is left out of this conversation. For of course, everyone will say yes to a higher salary!)What is the employee’s vision of the future?What are his/her one-year goals? Five-year goals? This information gathering exercise is designed 1) for the employee to think through and communicate goals and desires and 2) for management to gain insight into the employee’s future hopes and dreams. Succession planning connects desire, exceptional performance, AND potential. ~ Susan Bowen Tweet this! Desire comes from the employee.Performance is determined through the review of job history and sustained results.Does this person produce results that consistently exceed the operating, technical and professional output expected from a person in their current position?Does this person demonstrate excellent leadership ability (such as establishing and communicating strategic direction, inspiring and enabling staff to perform at the highest standards, championing change, and focusing on sustainable results)?Does this person achieve results in a way that always builds and maintains constructive working relationships with many people?Is this person oriented toward total business results, not just focused on the success of his/her own area? Many organizations tend to focus their succession pipelines on the exceptional performers without looking at employee potential or employee career goals. You have seen this happen.A person is promoted to a position because he is an exceptional, operationally talented performer in his current role. Desire and potential are not addressed in the vetting process. In his new role he fails to build the relationships and create the vision and strategy needed to move the company forward. He is removed from his position due to lack of desire and potential.Shock waves are felt throughout the organization. It is even worse when the person is the CEO.Realize that potential identification is more “art” than “science.” Rarely do you have objective data to review. Some assessments assist in identifying potential, but it is also helpful to rely on observations of the candidate’s interactions.Does this person exhibit broad and deep technical and interpersonal skills?Does this person currently demonstrate leadership skills that are expected at the next higher organizational level?Does this person regularly work at building new skills and abilities?If a people manager, does this person exhibit managerial skills that are expected at the next highest organizational level?Is there a “fire in the belly” that will indicate the employee’s willingness to reach for new challenges? Use a review team process to identify those who can lead the organization into the future (enterprise talent). Assess the desire, performance, and potential of each candidate brought forward. Keep emotion out of the decision-making. This is not a popularity contest. You are building the future of your company.Consider these Review Team rules-of-thumb:Limit the number of enterprise talent to less than 20% of your total employee populationProlonged disagreement about a candidate indicates that he/she may not be enterprise talent at this time.The CEO owns and stewards the process. Succession planning requires development of enterprise talent. Some organizations believe that development creates an inordinate strain on resources (in both dollars and time away from the job). Note, however, that organizational leadership readiness will only be achieved through development.Bob Eichinger and Michael Lombardo, former associates of the Center for Creative Leadership and the founders of Lominger International (A Korn/Ferry Company), recommend a 70% (on-the-job experiences) – 20% (coaching and feedback) – 10% (facilitated instruction) approach to development.Considering this approach, the opportunities to develop are limitless. The talent may:Manage projects,Supervise new teams,Work in a new department,Sit on a steering committee outside of the organization,Volunteer for a leadership position at a nonprofit,Present to an organization’s advisory board,Participate in the due diligence process for a pending merger,Swap jobs with another for a period of time (at least 6 months),Take on a global assignment,Transfer to a new location, etc. This development is conducted in the regular course of doing business. The benefits are realized as 1) the enterprise talent gains new knowledge, skills, abilities, and leadership aptitude and 2) the organization gains a real-time view of how the talent is adapting to potentially high-stress situations. This actual experience far outweighs that of a simulated classroom environment.If you have not entered the succession-planning ring, I suggest you take the plunge. Start simple. Identify and develop the talent for the leadership needs of tomorrow.Get ready! It’s going to happen..  [...]

  3. [...] Beware the leadership void. This article offers three tips to help you help your organization prepare for leadership succession and the inevitable. (Ready or Not …It's Going to Happen!  [...]

  4. [...] Beware the leadership void. This article offers three tips to help you help your organization prepare for leadership succession and the inevitable. (Timely reminder of the need for #leadership succession planning!  [...]

  5. [...] Beware the leadership void. This article offers three tips to help you help your organization prepare for leadership succession and the inevitable.  [...]

  6. [...] Beware the leadership void. This article offers three tips to help you help your organization prepare for leadership succession and the inevitable.  [...]

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