Written by
Chris Molloy

Published
10 Feb 2016

Are you winning the war of leadership succession?

10 Feb 2016 • by Chris Molloy

Dwight D Eisenhower’s view on planning was clear: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In business, as in battle, the activity of planning is where the value lies: thinking through the issues and solutions, assessing the options and challenging the assumptions, making sure that intelligent due diligence is applied. Yes, a plan rarely survives first contact with the enemy but having spent time understanding the options it will give you agility and advantage. 

How is your business evolving?

This is as true in the case of leadership succession planning as any other business-critical area. From the board to the front line it is vital that a company and its individuals know who takes over if someone is no longer there to lead. Whether that is expected or sudden, business continuity and business evolution depends upon it. Losing a leader and influencer is disruptive in itself. Without someone being primed to step into the breach and adopt the role that disruption can become destruction.

In a jobs market that has regained its buoyancy and where so much business change is underway the risk of losing leaders is rising daily. 

“That’s all very well” you might say. “We have a plan” – but do you? In many businesses – and not just SME’s – day-to-day tactics often dominate management thinking and planning quickly turns into crisis management when events occur; it is often hard to justify the time and effort it takes to plan for succession. A very good checklist for succession planning is found here, however it relies on business sponsorship as well as HR excellence to do it well.  Without sponsorship HR leaders can often find it hard to engage leadership in succession planning.

So how do we as talent professionals influence leadership to devote the necessary resources to this critical task?

Board leadership

In a recent panel session I chaired on talent within the resurgent UK Bioindustry, it became clear that talent and talent succession were not regular items at board level for many companies. Boards are responsible for assessing significant business risks. If people really are at the heart of business success – as most will say is the case – talent planning should be on the agenda next to strategic business planning and financial forecasts. Leading talent should be known and every leader should know who their replacement(s) could be. If this is not true then the board is not meeting its responsibilities. Boards must be challenged to treat talent as an equity, not a resource and to demand more of executive teams to cascade a culture of talent management. They are then able to discuss, openly and transparently, their own board development and membership to meet future strategic challenges or goals.

Executive engagement through key talent retention

Having succession planning as a management objective is a start but having it as a requirement is a sea-change. Any leader stands on the shoulders of their teams but unless they are actively involved in their own succession they risk damaging their legacy. Leaders who are not interested in leaving a sustained mark on a business lack one of the major motivations of good leadership. Succession planning can often become confused with competition for the ‘top-job’. At the same time many leaders worry about what would happen if they lost a key member of their leadership team. Whilst competition is inevitable and healthy in most cases, involving potential successors in personal development towards succession retains their interest and makes them and their leader better employees. This can easily be done by involving them in the analysis that is the vital component of succession planning.

Due diligence analysis is key

Succession planning uses the same core skills as strategic hiring: a clear idea of what you want, a thorough due diligence analysis of skills, potential and behaviours and – by definition – a comparative evaluation comparing the incumbent and their would-be successors.  This evidence-based, due diligence-led approach, provides the key analysis upon which training, development and coaching are built and through which objective comparisons of potential successors can be based. Without the time spent and evidence analysed you have a plan with no planning. Also, as talent due diligence and comparative analysis can be outsourced – just as we outsource due diligence for other business decisions – there is no reason not to generate these data, engaging incumbent and potential successors in a virtuous cycle of assessment and training.

The value of external benchmarking

Even for those companies with good internal comparative analysis it is very rare to find internal successors measured against their peers outside the company. This is often due to a lack of knowledge of and access to people who are the external benchmarks for either the incumbent or his or her successor. Again this is where external due diligence providers have a role to play. They have cross-company access and a balanced view of the comparators. They are also able to supply anonymised ‘real-world’ data. 

Leaders without successors are high risk assets in any business. Leaders of quality, in a culture that supports it, know this and help HR experts with that planning. boards and executives can be challenged by HR to adopt a more evidence-based, planned approach to securing their legacy and preparing for battle on a competitive field. HR in turn can be supported by external due diligence providers whose analytical approach market knowledge, access to benchmarks and objectivity add considerable value to this vital task.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.