Succession Planning – What’s Right and What’s the Risk?

Succession Planning – What’s Right and What’s the Risk?
Succession planning is a business-critical activity and therefore not just an HR ritual. It needs to be carried out keeping in mind principles that help drive resilient organizations

The office was unusually chaotic one Monday morning as Anamika walked in. In her tenure as HR Manager for the last 7 years, she had not seen anything like this. She learnt that 3 high profile employees had announced their resignation and the impact was too sudden to handle.

There were speculations about retention strategies, possible replacement candidates, and whatnot! Anamika stepped back in retrospect. What has caused this? What could have been done differently? Let’s travel back in time along with Anamika to find out.

Flash back about six and half years ago… Anamika has just settled in her role and the annual performance appraisal was on. Everything happened like a ritual, time-boxed and triggered by software. The process was high-tech and low-touch, so much that she could hardly see anyone enjoying the process. She navigated through every step in this ‘annual ritual’ and reached the activity called succession planning.

Today Anamika’s retrospection zoomed into this activity. It sounds so important for business continuity and yet it was being conducted mindlessly. Ironic, isn’t it? She recalled how it was done. The performance history of employees was looked at and their potential was judged.

Each employee was assigned to a ‘box’ on a 9-box grid and classified anything between “Star Leader” to “Useless Worker”. The Stars were identified as successors to their respective managers and their “readiness” for the next level was filled in a form. These documents were stamped “Confidential” and stashed away! Sounds normal? Then why the chaos today?

Hey! Wait! Wait!! Wait!!! Take a look at the above process. The HR Team facilitated the exercise with the respective Head of Department. Fair enough, but in all this, where is the employee whose future and fate are being decided?? Does this require transparency or should it remain confidential?

Is it a top-down activity or should there be a focus on how the incumbent perceives it? If the incumbent knew where she/he is heading, would it not have avoided the chaos today?? Anamika stopped with a jolt and almost cried out loud “Eureka!!!”. She had found her answers!

Succession planning is a business-critical activity and therefore not just an HR ritual. It needs to be carried out keeping in mind principles that help drive resilient organizations –

  • Transparency of processes
  • Busting bureaucracy
  • Building flexibility
  • Enabling multiskilling
  • Empowering innovation

Most organizations get it right when it comes to the “What” of the process but may falter on the “How”. Succession planning is not just about identifying successors and keeping them waiting in the wings. For all you know waiting in the wings might give them wings to fly away, just like it is happening in Anamika’s organization right now.

Readiness for the next role is not just a skill gap identified by assessment centres. More important than that is what is on the incumbent’s mind about their career path. Here are a few risks associated with the traditional succession planning process –

  1. The incumbent is not interested in the year-marked 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.
  2. The timing just 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.
  3. Business changes could mean an identified role is no longer needed. 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.

The overall risk here is that it 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.

Anamika made her notes – The only way to mitigate these risks is transparency about planning and opportunities can build trust, credibility, and engagement. Convene a group of all manager-and-above employees and review their nine-box rating and readiness for future roles. Give them a chance to hear from their peers who can offer fresh insights about them and their interactions.

As a group, let them identify specific developmental experiences, help raise each other’s profiles and find stretch opportunities to prepare themselves for future roles. Won’t it be a great, collaborative process to be part of because the leaders would have 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 are rewarding for the individual and the organization……Anamika thus started envisioning a new-age succession planning process.


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