Sameer Nagarajan, Global CPO, Erba Mannheim on Succession Planning

Sameer Nagarajan, Global CPO, Erba Mannheim on Succession Planning
In order to be effective, succession planning has to be the joint responsibility of the CEO, HR, and key senior leaders across the organisation.

In Conversation With Sameer Nagarajan Global Chief People Officer Erba Mannheim on Succession Planning

Sameer Nagarajan is currently working as Global Chief People Officer at Erba Mannheim, a global IVD company committed to providing Total Solutions for Clinical Diagnostics.

Prior to this, he was working as Global President- HR with Cadila Pharmaceuticals.

Sameer is a senior HR professional with over three decades of experience in leading the HR function while partnering businesses to growth and profitability. Before Cadila, he was working with Hindustan Unilever and Unilever in various capacities in India, Switzerland and Sri Lanka.

He completed an MBA in HR from XLRI Jamshedpur in 1988 and has a proven track record in Strategic Business Partnering and leading teams to deliver organizational outcomes. Previously, Sameer has also been associated with AstraZeneca Pharma, BPB India Gypsum, Microland, and Hindustan Ciba-Geigy.

Sameer is particularly interested in Organisation Efficiency and Talent Management with a specific focus on Capability Development and Leadership Development and has wide intercultural experience spanning Asia and Europe.

Q- How do you see succession planning in today’s context? Is succession planning still relevant?

Succession Planning (SP) as a concept has been in vogue for several years now, comprising in its simplest form the idea of answering the question:

“If this role was to fall vacant today, who would fill it?”

It is in fact one of the most pertinent questions to answer in both an organizational and a business continuity sense, because it enables businesses to confidently answer their stakeholders when asked for an assurance of survival in the long term. It is now even more relevant than ever, because it clearly conveys the following:

  • To shareholders, that there is a longer term view on continuity in the business, and we are playing for keeps; even a sudden mishap will not derail the business
  • To high potential individuals, that there is a career path, that reassures them that even while today is rewarding, the future is also being taken care of
  • To all employees, there is demonstrable evidence that performance is rewarded and if they do well, they will be considered for senior roles in the future

Q- Who is responsible for succession planning and what strategies can you use to assist in implementing effective succession planning?

In order to be effective, succession planning has to be the joint responsibility of the CEO, HR, and key senior leaders across the organisation. While conceptually it sounds simple, there are several issues that arise in the process of decision-making and implementation. Common issues in arriving at decisions are:

  • Which roles to plan succession for – there is a dynamic that suggests that all roles should be planned for, on the basis that all roles are critical in an organisation. In fact, this is not the case. Some roles can be filled easily by hiring from without. It is only the critical few roles, those that place the business at serious risk of discontinuity if they fall vacant for even a short period, , that need to have a successor planned at all times.
  • The expectation that the decision will be based on pure and objective data alone. The reality is that there is a strong element of judgment in succession planning. In that, it is no different from any other business process. Of course, one seeks to minimize bias and stereotyping as much as possible (and that could be a separate topic by itself), but it is finally a decision-making process. One has to accept that not every decision is fail-safe. Some errors may occur but as long as we learn from them and move on, it is ok.
  • Whether one should communicate to the individual concerned that they are identified as successors? There is a fear sometimes expressed that this may instill, in some members of the leadership, a sense of complacency and entitlement. But is this really the case? It can be a strong case for motivation and retention, and in fact for critical positions, one would expect that the successors would be mature enough to maintain a discreet silence and not take their own growth and development for granted. Again, this has to be viewed in the context of the overall culture of the organization.
  • Will the plan change every so often? The answer to this is an emphatic “yes!”. The business context today is VUCA and dynamic. The succession plan needs to be reviewed as often as necessary to ensure its relevance. A good governance framework needs to be built that ensures periodic review both in the light of contextual business needs as well as internal talent situations.
  • Related to the above, the review needs to be done at the Board level, ideally. This provides enough seriousness and gravity to the entire exercise. A Board review can be done once a year and there would ideally be one more review, done at the CEO and HR leader level, in the middle of the year.
  • All critical stakeholders should have a voice in the process.
  • Further, there is an entire discipline to the process of giving effect to a succession plan. For the successor to be able to effectively perform the role, there will be some training required and this may either be formal classroom training or the more on-the-job variety of role and project-based learning experiences. This can be an input to the overall L&D plan of the organization, thus tying the plan more deeply into business outcomes.

Q- How do you select employees for succession planning?

The selection of the employees who figure in the plan is of strategic important. Broadly the following factors are taken into consideration:

  • Age (in those countries where it is not a discriminatory criterion).
  • Tenure i.e. length of service in the organization (most organisations rightfully believe that there has to be some demonstrable performance for a length of time before the individual can be considered for a succession plan, so that it is not a decision based on a flash in the pan.
  • Performance itself, as demonstrated by hard facts, numbers, changes driven, innovation, and any other criteria that the organization sees as critical to business success and role performance
  • Potential. While this has largely been an area of subjective analysis, recent advancements have ensured that basis measurements and assessments based on capabilities and competencies – such as psychometrics, assessments, peer feedback, customer feedback, 360 reviews, etc. – there is a wealth of data available to support the judgment on a person’s potential.

In the process of succession planning, there are several supportive elements. The key is of course to have reliable, consistent sources of data that are nurtured over time. These sources, internal and external to the organization – such as customers, shareholders, peers, subordinates, etc. – can help form a composite image.

The second is to bring rigour into the process and make sure that the discipline is always maintained so that it does not seem as if it is a one-off exercise for the benefit of a few stakeholders. There are also several excellent IT tools available nowadays that help organisations and HR leaders collate, drive and lead the process of succession planning.

Q- Any final words?

Ultimately, taking risks and betting on people in a sensible and balanced manner is key to the entire process of Succession Planning.

Thank you, Sameer!


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