Making Succession Planning “Real”

Posted by on Jan 8, 2014 in Business, Great Leadership By Dan, Leadership | 0 comments

I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.

This question from Jen:

“How do you make succession planning a ‘real thing’? We use Lominger’s competency modeling and their Learning Agility tools in some robust ways.  We ‘9 box’ folks and we have depth charts where names are slotted in to ‘Red (ready in 3-5 years), Yellow (ready in 1-2 years) or Green (ready now)’ slots.  But I can’t get those charts to be seen as real.  Names are plugged in but I don’t see people advancing from Red to Yellow and from Yellow to Green and then being selected to fill an empty position if they a
re in the green.  We’ve begun a focus on Individual Development Planning – and it is my main cause in life to move names on the chart.  And not just to move them but to ensure they are really ready.  How do I get the leadership team to see this as important?  When an open position comes they don’t look at the depth chart, they talk about people and then sometimes hire outside the company. 
Any guidance or best practices around making succession planning real would be very helpful.”
Another GREAT question, and what a way real scenario!

The good news is, it sounds like Jen really know

s what she’s doing. She’s using good processes, tools, best practices, and is committed to the development of her company’s leaders.

I also think she’s hit the nail right on the head when it comes to seeing the need to begin emphasizing development, in addition to replacement charts.

Succession planning without development is only a hyp

othetical exercise. Then, of course, you need to make sure your development plans are seen as real, but that’s the topic of another post.

Development will get those individuals ready when the opportunity opens up!

It’s also possible that her company’s CEO and senior leaders may only be paying it lip service at best. They may be chickens (involved), but they’re not pigs (committed).

Senior and middle managers are REALLY good at figuring out what’s “real” and what’s not. They have to be! They have so many competing priorities to deal with; they would drown if they didn’t get good at sorting them out.

They know something must be real when:

1. Their boss is always hammering, er…, asking them about it. They didn’t just get a formal letter/email (probably ghost written by someone else) telling them how important it is, they repeatedly hear it from the big dog.

2. It’s not just an annual formal thing – it’s operationalized in their day-to-day, month-to-month work. Most senior teams have Monthly Operation Reviews (MORs) – the real stuff is on that agenda, and the rest is all noise.

3. Bad things happen to them if they ignore it or don’t take it seriously. Pity the manager who keeps showing up with unprepared and can’t get on board; it’s not a pretty sight.


4. Good things (rewards, kudos, promotions and positive results) happen when they take it seriously and do it well. Word spreads, and everyone wants to pick their brains to see how they are doing it. They get awards and asked to make presentations.

5. It’s a part of their performance metrics and compensation. Key activities and results are tracked, reported, evaluated, and it has an impact on variable compensation.

If these 5 things are nothappening, then you’ll hear them say things like “just keep your head down and this too shall pass”. You get resistance or compliance at best.

Succession planning usually becomes real when the CEO or Board of Directors begins to lose sleep over a lack of talent to fill key roles. They have begun to feel the pain of costly external mis-hires and long external searches while positions sit vacant and opportunities are lost.

Succession planning is strategic and a long-term priority – you can’t see and feel it on a quarter-to-quarter basis, so it often gets overlooked until it’s too late. Performance results are a lagging indicator of good or poor talent management, and it’s often up to HR leaders to connect the dots.

I’ve written about the importance of CEO commitment before. To me, it’s the single most important differentiator when it comes to succession planning and leadership development.

So what do you do if you don’t have the commitment of the CEO? Well, you could build a business case. However, the case has to be real – not just “because it’s the right thing to do and everyone else does it”. And if you can’t build a compelling case, maybe succession planning just isn’t a priority.

Once a CEO is on board – and truly committed – the rest is relatively easy. All of the best practices you have in place all of a sudden become important – and real.

What if you work for an organization where the CEO isn’t committed, or perhaps only somewhat committed, even after you’ve given it your best shot?

You can still move the needle, even if it’s at the individual level. Read the Starfish story, and keep it in front of you. It’s good to have a cause in life, and the development of leaders sure is a good one to have.
How about if we hear from others? How do you make succession planning real?