Training & Development

Building success in succession planning

Quint Studer.

Last week I wrote about the misconceptions about “stealing” employees and how to learn from employee departures.

So, what next?

Look at succession planning in your organization. Departures, for better or worse, are a part of business. They always will be. It is a company’s responsibility to make sure that when someone leaves, through a commitment to training, there is another person ready to step up.

How many times have you heard, “Who can take their place?” or “You are leaving? Can you please stay longer and maybe train your replacement?” when a resignation is announced?

That’s a telltale sign that no succession plan was in place.

With many companies — especially small ones — it is not possible to have a replacement ready to go. Double staffing to prepare for the future sounds nice on the face, but the increased labor costs could eliminate any future if the company is not successful right now. Every company needs to be profitable to stay in business. Even not-for-profits must have enough funds to cover cost and build up a cash reserve.

I have seen various tactics used and termed “succession planning.”

One tactic is naming the next leader in waiting. This has received a lot of attention in college football in cases when the head coach is aging. Other schools may begin using that against a school in recruiting, telling prospects that the head coach won’t be there for long.

This happened at Florida State near the end of Bobby Bowden’s career when Jimbo Fisher was named the head coach in waiting. At times, this strategy works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, the head coach in waiting gets tired of waiting, like Will Muschamp being named the head coach in waiting at Texas, but ultimately leaving for Florida.

Some larger organizations have a training program for “rising stars,” or “up-and-comer’s.” These are people hand-picked by top executives because of their potential for leadership. This works in the fact that programs like these can develop people. The down side is often programs like this focus on younger people based on academic backgrounds and miss many other employees who are working daily in the organization who could be better prepared to take the next step.

At times an organization will include those rising stars in management training. This can prove successful and serve as a filter where a company can learn that an employee may not be well suited for management even though they are great at their current role.

There’s a downside here, too: It can also send a message to some that if not selected for this program, they don’t have a chance to move up. It also can set up expectations that those selected will automatically be given a leadership role.

Of course, there is always the option for top leaders to keep either in writing or in their brain the names of logical replacements should a person leaves.

As you can tell, the reason succession planning is so hard is because there’s no easy answer. There is no cookie-cutter approach.

Here are a few ways that can help in succession planning:

— Use cross-training. In cross-training, many people receive skill development in other areas of an organization in addition to their normal role. This can be hard on the staff, but it is important to explain the why and recognize those employees that can perform various tasks.

— Be inclusive. I feel the best succession planning is not to pre-judge someone. A person who may be a great technician or shine in a specific area may not be good in management. A person who may be good at their job may make a great manager. Being very inclusive in training will help identify those people you otherwise may have missed.

— Don’t wait to give people an opportunity to show their skill. Ask people to lead teams, lead a project or complete a task outside their normal role. This is a very effective way to see if a person has skills in leading people. It is not unusual for someone who thought they wanted to be in management to change their mind after testing the waters.

Allow people to utilize some assessment tools. Today there are many effective tools a person can use, most free or at a minimal cost, to assess their strengths, critical thinking skills and more.

Always be on the lookout for talent in your workplace and elsewhere. Internal promotions are important. If employees see most people in management coming from outside the organization, some will lose their desire to move into management. If all managers come internally, then that new, outside perspective is lost. A rule of thumb is to have about 75 percent of promotions come from internal candidates.

Building depth in an organization is very hard. That is why it is a common struggle for so many organizations. The points above offer no magic cure. However, they do offer ways to build depth in a very cost-effective way.