Successful succession planning program not only creates bench strength in an organization, it creates “multiple choices” for each vacancy. Successor development programs also generate company loyalty as an organization shows it is willing to invest in its people. In best practice companies, successful succession planning may fill up to eighty percent of the vacancies in key positions. Perhaps most of all, successful succession planning retains precious knowledge and expertise within the organization, while also leaving room for “new blood” and new ideas for the future. The result is a more competitive company that is equipped to face the challenges that lie ahead.
In order for succession planning to succeed, several key ingredients need to be present. In most companies with succession plans, some of these ingredients already are in use. In best-practice companies, all six are present.
Top Management Support
First and foremost, top management support of succession planning is absolutely crucial. If senior management is not enthusiastically and financially supportive of employee development, succession planning will fail. Human resources personnel may be able to fill boxes on a future organizational chart, but key players will not be ready for additional responsibility unless senior management encourages self-development.
Linkage to Business Strategy
Second, a clear-cut business strategy is necessary for success in succession planning. The linkage between strategy and employee development is essential. Employees must be developed with the business direction of the future in mind. The key question to be answered is “What knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors will be needed to execute our strategy?” Only after this question is answered can the next phase begin.
The third ingredient is identification of talent. A company’s existing talent pool must be assessed on the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors needed to execute strategy. Here, many companies fall short. Either they assess only job knowledge and leave out other competencies, or they do not dive deeply enough in the company to search for “bright lights” at all employee levels. The best companies avoid these errors and conduct their talent search process with such tools as standardized testing, 360s, or a 9-box grid that plots employee performance and potential.
Individualized Development Plans
Once talent is identified and assessed, individual development plans can be created. The emphasis here is on customized development plans. High potential people differ in background, experience, and personality. They have different learning needs. Some people already are proficient in such abilities as financial management, critical thinking, and conflict management. Why send them through a generic executive training program that covers these topics? Train people only in areas where they need improvement, not in a standardized curriculum.
Learning styles also vary from person to person. Some individuals learn quickly in a formalized classroom setting. Other people respond better to “action learning,” involving such things as job rotation, special projects, task forces, and the like. Another group of employees may learn best from reading books, listening to CDs, or participating in web-based training programs. Sometimes, direct suggestions work best. By featuring a person’s preferred learning style, the likelihood of follow-through in training increases substantially.
The fifth ingredient in successful succession planning is a coaching/mentoring program. A coaching/mentoring program enables participants to apply on-the-job the lessons learned from developmental training activities. The role of a coach is to serve as an accountability mechanism as well as a learning process manager in successor development. Coaching is a minimum requirement for successor development. Some companies go beyond coaching and actually provide mentoring services. Mentors promote informal learning by discussing challenges and sharing experiences. Mentors also serve as confidential sounding boards for succession program participants.
If true learning has occurred, observable changes will take place. These changes in an individual’s skills or behaviors can be and should be measured to verify improvement. Tools such as 360s, retesting, performance appraisal, or direct behavioral observations can be used to determine an individual’s readiness for a new assignment. This reassessment process needs to be fair, objective, and non-political in order to have credibility in the organization.
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