Succession planning: finding a best practice in a pandemic world

Succession Planning
Succession Planning

When you are new to management or a new organization, everything conspires to cast you as “the new guy,” “the new kid on the block,” or “the bottom of the ladder.” Legacy has institutionalized the pecking order of corporations, and breaking out of that mold presents an intellectual and pragmatic challenge.

Senior managers and high-potential management need help and direction in moving away from this systemic succession psychology patterned on military traditions. There continues a strong sense that there is no need to fix what has not broken.

Nonetheless, we challenged leading executives in HR, Talent Management, Recruiting, and Training & Development to create practices they believe ought to be, convinced that they will become a reality if we envision such practices.

Three prompts drove our dialogue.

1. Is there a proper sequence of meetings, decisions, and communications to optimize succession planning? What best practice assures a smooth and transparent execution? How deep and wide does the best practice go?

2. There are ways we can mitigate risk during assessment and selection while respecting the DE&I strategy.

3. Life in a post-COVID lockdown requires best practices in evaluating and refining the leadership pipeline. 

4. Who owns succession planning?

Is there a proper practice?

Our leadership community framed an interesting perspective. The point of reference for analysis shifts, depending on who and where you are in the organization. These reference points are now less stable. 

·  These executives work hard to create a strategy that views succession as a spectrum of development and movement from the bottom up. It is a fluid dynamic that sees some potential leaders come and go, succeed and fail, amaze and disappoint.

·  Ambitious talents at the bottom envision a horizontal climb. They plan and pursue incremental achievements to accelerate their advancement. They align their performance with metrics presented as conducive to promotion. However, they must learn there is much more to succession strategies.

·  The most senior officers and board members have short-term memories. They tend to notice recent performance only so deep into the organization. To expand their view, chief people officers must present potential leaders in a calibrated framework that CEOs find user-friendly.

Major corporations tend to value talent assessments up to four layers below the CEO office. They make that the “bottom” of their strategy. They envision a system of performance and talent performance assessments and reviews, and they struggle with making it happen well.

·  Accurate and current talent data is essential. It takes oversight, authority, and accountability to ensure employee profiles remain valid.

·  The COVID-19 impact has affected assessment criteria. Assessments now consider how people want to work, where they will relocate willingly, what future roles interest them, and what gaps they need to bridge to pursue developmental opportunities.

·  Some major corporations have opted to use Workday Succession or something similar. They seek a comprehensive, smooth, and transparent calibration of talent performance continuingly. It provides succession partners with data they can use to frame their periodic in-person assessments.

Is there a risk-free practice?

Leaders responsible for succession planning must also mitigate risk during assessment and selection. Any practice must align with the organization’s DE&I strategy. The still-evolving effects of social justice events mandate aggressive and assertive practices that energize Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) commitments.

·  Succession strategies and practices require reassessment. For example, they must manage the risk of unconscious bias training. That reassessment must follow courageous internal conversations about talent against a shifting influence in DE&I.

·  This development may require a comprehensive cultural transformation. Everyone must have a clearer picture of the leadership necessary. Performance expectations need revision and clarity, so high potential talent and their performance assessors share the same vocabulary and metrics in a climate where inclusive leadership has yet to be defined.

·  Leadership positions are not static. They are not boxes filled by those completing checklists. Many of the characteristics needed at any given time are malleable. They must be scalable and pledged to accountability. HR Business Partners must frame capabilities and execute a strategy that reshapes succession metrics as needs change.

Is there a new normal practice?

The COVID-19 lockdown dominated life in 2020 and well into 2021. Political divisiveness and social justice issues have left our culture out of sorts and struggling for direction and security. These volatile times require HRBPs to disrupt their management of talent pipelines looking for opportunities to improve the succession system and impact.

·  The most successful organizations were able to pivot in 2020 towards a new responsive resilience. It effectively separated weak leaders from strong. Many succession candidates proved unable to adjust and rebuild.

·  Employers reconsidered their business model during lockdowns, shedding employees, incentivizing remote work, and vacating real estate. These factors and more require our HRBPs to reimagine organization charts, critical paths, and evolving talent needs. For instance, the CEO job description must integrate new directions.

·  As organizations pivot and adapt to new business models, they must facilitate psychological safety and emotional support within ill-defined emerging structures.

·  Many organizations saw leaders step up in the pandemic environment. Others step back and fell behind. As some showed up and others disappeared, succession considerations changed. Ironically, the COVID presented new opportunities, new concerns of high potential promise.

Is there an owned practice?

CEOs often hear too many voices. Internal and external stakeholders do not hesitate to champion one succession candidate or another. The most senior and invested stakeholders must seek decisive input from leaders in Human Resources, Talent Management, T&D, or other designated voices.

·  Traditional experiences look to HR for design and decision on critical paths. However, many HR leaders find their recommendations tolerated rather than accepted. Some organizations delegate the talent decisions to HR without extending accountability. Best practices would strengthen the HR role into something with more impact than advice and consent.

·  Many organizations have yet to locate accountability. Various inputs reach the most senior stakeholders without metrics and assessment. This “buddy system” risks organizations’ capability and future.

·  Organizations must assess high-potential performance regularly and share the talent dashboard with authorized leaders. Succession planning must not bed evaluated when openings suddenly occur. Organizations need a bench equipped and empowered to act continuingly. Successful succession does not happen in retrospect; it must always be ready to turn potential talent energy into kinetic power.

·  Planning owners must make paths to advancement and succession clear and transparent. It brings power to the strategy to share clear roadmaps to succession, including the metrics involved.

·  Our experts report various business patterns, but they agree that C-suite stakeholders must give more time and attention to succession planning. They agree that managers should play a role in talent assessment, but many managers are not positioned to envision larger pictures and needs.

·  Organizations can use technology to leverage performance data. Systems like Workday bring discipline and consistency to measurement. They produce aggregate reports on performance and drive manager involvement. However, such systems often fall short in identifying and rating less concrete keys to leadership roles.

Where we are and where we go from here

We are not sure where we are in succession planning. In some ways, it has not been a priority concern amidst the volatile issues of the past 18 months. Still, our people professionals recognize it is an issue with weight and volume, needing attention and reframing.

On one level, COVID-19 highlighted the practical need to have a pipeline in place. The voices we listen to insist organizations must take succession out of a once-a-year event to a cycle in the flow of business conversation. Succession planning assessment must happen throughout the year. Those accountable for having the suitable and capable talent in place must continue looking for improved ways of getting inputs from a broader group. We need a more holistic view of how employees work, get work done, and pull others with them.

However, we remain short of pragmatic solutions. For instance, social justice issues of the same 18 months demand more clarity about how outstanding leadership should look. We need clarity on the expectations and experience associated with the leadership necessary to inspire a movement towards DE&I aspirations. 

The best practice arising from this dialogue asks us to pursue quality results from continuing, open, and courageous conversations.