A few of the more traditional leaders I’ve worked with recently have complained about the younger members of their staff. They are upset at what they see as a reduced level of loyalty. In the old days, they say, we were like a family but the younger generation don’t seem to want or respect this. They are too quick to jump ship for another company or they lack the same level of commitment as the older members of the team. I’m not sure whether this is one of the typical generational stereotypes that often get thrown about or whether there is in fact a demise of the concept of our employer being a family. I really hope it’s the latter. We are not our employees’ family. We never have been. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s healthy.

For all of the nice stuff about being a family, the sense of belonging, the long term-relationships with colleagues we care deeply about, the loyalty and pride that we feel, there are several reasons why we should stop presenting the relationship with our employees in this way.

It’s dishonest

The thing about your family is that, even when times are tough, we don’t tend to get rid of them, even if we’d like to! We’re being dishonest when we welcome our employees to their new family because, if we have to – for financial or performance reasons – we’ll discard them. 225 million jobs were lost globally in the first year of the pandemic and whilst this will have been really painful for many company leaders, in the end, they still do it.

It’s unhealthy

Companies that present themselves as a family tend to engage in some practices that are unhealthy for both the company and the employee.

There’s a tendency to see a resignation as a betrayal. One boss I had didn’t speak to me for six weeks after I told him I was leaving. This is so short-sighted. Smarter companies recognise that people leaving is part and parcel of the employer-employee relationship and make it ok for people to do it. In fact, they go further than that. They nurture their alumni and ensure that they can come back – with new skills, fresh perspectives and experiences – that can add more value to both parties than if the person had stayed. Da Vita Healthcare, for example, regularly hire back people from their alumni. Around 15% of new hires have worked there before.

Conversely, it becomes a given that employees will stay with us, that long tenure is the ultimate goal. Think about what we celebrate. We give out awards or extra holiday for long-service, we monitor and reprimand managers with high churn rates, we devise retention schemes to keep people with us. Now of course, we should thank people for their loyalty. But equally, shouldn’t we prize those people who don’t stay forever? Who purposely limit their time with us because they value variety and new challenges?

I once worked with a guy who would only accept two-year contracts because he worried that if he accepted a permanent contract he would start to feel too settled and he would become wedded to his employer. He worried that he could become scared of the prospect of having to leave and find another job. And that this would drive unhealthy behaviours; that he’d be more concerned about clinging to his job than doing a great one. If we stop thinking about ourselves as a family where leaving isn’t ever talked about, we can have healthier conversations about the need to move on, to keep skills and mindsets fresh. Whenever I’ve worked with long-serving employees, there is always a high percentage of them who seem unhappy, resentful almost. Like an unhappy marriage where the couple are miserable but lack the confidence to leave. We need to have healthier conversations with our people about how leaving isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We should openly talk about a healthy average time in role to prevent the relationship getting stale. I love the LinkedIn concept of Tours of Duty, where it’s not just acknowledged that you won’t stay forever, but positively welcomed.

Whilst seeing our employer as our family has some negative consequences, I’m not saying it’s a relationship that should be purely transactional either. Of course, there should be warmth and kindness. But being kind is not about pretending there’s a job for life and avoiding difficult conversations. Kindness means having those honest conversations and being truthful about the relationship. I think the ultimate kindness we can show our people is to work with them to make sure they can remain employable in the future, with us possibly, but more importantly, somewhere else. Both the employer and the employee have a responsibility to keep their skills fresh, but more importantly, that they don’t see their future as interminably linked to us. We can work together to ensure they retain the confidence and the appetite to leave.

My first job was as a teacher in a college. Being new, I would put heart and soul into coming up with well-structured lesson plans filled with interesting ways of delivering the content. I really enjoyed the lesson planning – the bit I hated was when the actual students arrived in class and “messed up” my beautiful plan by not learning in accordance it. I quickly realised that teaching was probably not my true vocation and thought I’d learned a valuable lesson myself – that real life has a nasty habit of messing up carefully laid plans.

But clearly, I failed to learn that lesson because, fast forward to my career as an HR Director, and there I am repeating the mistake – this time with succession plans. I was told by HR experts that the succession plan is one of the things I HAD to do. And so I dutifully complied in every organisation I worked in. And not just to tick the governance box for our potential CEO replacements, but often going much further and producing numerous succession plans to cover off our Divisional top teams as well. Once I’d got a couple of names in each succession box, I would feel a lot better. We can sleep easier, I thought, we have our list. But, just as my students messed up my lesson plans, so my identified successors would mess up my succession plans.  They would leave. They wouldn’t be willing to relocate. They would struggle with additional responsibilities. They wouldn’t like the role that had been assigned as “theirs”. I began to realise that the comfort I thought I was getting from a nicely completed succession plan was an illusion.

Perhaps the bigger wake up call was the realisation that the flaw in my succession plans wasn’t just the successors, but the incumbents themselves. I was asking senior leaders to identify their successors through a process that was mis-matched to the fast-paced and disrupted world they were identifying them for. My succession planning processes always seemed to have the same problems, such as:

There are of course some innovative approaches that some organisations are using to identify, if not their certain successors, then a group of people who can provide leadership in the future. I’d like to highlight three:

Don’t try and allocate people into roles – just agree your subs bench

Instead of succession planning within silos, get clusters of leaders from different teams to identify the internal talent that’s available? If you add into the mix a couple of external perspectives who can help you think through how the roles and capabilities might need to change, you get a breadth of opinion that might lead to some interesting results.

Build talent communities

I recently met with the Head of Digital for a well-known media brand. He talked about how he had been courted for nearly two years by the CEO of his current company. No hard sell. No vacancy. Just having dinner every now and again. Building relationships with individuals who may or who may never become part of your organisation takes effort but is something all of our leaders should be doing if they’re serious about robust succession. I think the facilitation of this is a key role for HR Directors of the future.

Choose your leaders through their followers

I was very interested to hear about an approach to succession planning that didn’t go top-down, but bottom up. Using Network Analysis tools, the teams, not the incumbents were asked a series of simple questions such as:

“Who do you trust?”

“Who do you go to for connections?”

“Who inspires you?

“Who stretches and develops you?”

This lead to a number of potential successors being identified who had those attributes that meant people would follow them and would perform better. Identifying your future leaders through the people who will be led by them could provide you with some great additional insights.

When I reflect on the results of my succession efforts, I have to acknowledge that they failed to produce what was needed – capabilities for the future, movement and the creation of opportunity, a range of leadership styles and perspectives. Succession plans, like so many of our talent processes try to provide an organisation with certainty. They say “We can be certain that we have the leaders of the future because we have all the boxes filled”. But HR shouldn’t be offering this kind of guarantee. We should be brave enough to tell our organisations that we can’t possibly be certain about who exactly will fit which role, by when. All we can offer them are some future-proofed attributes that, if possessed by enough people, might enable our organisations to survive or thrive. Attributes such as curiosity, connectivity and insight, humility and self-knowledge.

Many of our traditional views on how to manage talent are out of step with a disrupted and fast-moving world. We need a fresh perspective on what great talent management looks like. Here are five things that great talent leaders don’t do, that we might have admired in the past.

1. They don’t hold onto their best people

Running a talent review with senior leaders can be so painful. Their desire to hang onto their best talent rather than see them move to another Division is palpably obvious. I’ve heard them complaining that “it’s not quite the right time” or worse still, even talking down their team member’s ability to make them less desirable to their colleagues. It’s understandable given the way they are themselves are rewarded and recognised but also short-sighted. Leaders who proactively encourage their best employees to move across divisional lines are not only doing the company a favour, they become recognised as net exporters of talent and so will find being a magnet for future talent easier.

Now clearly, if your team are wanting to abandon you because you’re a nightmare to work for, then that’s not a good sign. But if you’ve created a culture where it’s ok, or even desirable for your people to express their ambition and acknowledge that they’re interested in opportunities outside the team, then good for you. The consumer research organisation Nielsen has won recognition for its “Ready to Rotate” initiative whereby all staff were encouraged to flag their interest in new roles or stretch projects. Good people are likely to move on if they’re not growing, so encouraging your people to leave to enable that growth may keep them in the company, even if they’re not in your team.

Do you make sure your team know you want them to show interest in other roles outside of the team – that it’s not a betrayal, but something you welcome?

2. They don’t have a problem with talent going outside the company

I’ve seen leaders dragged across hot coals for this by CEO’s. But the potential damage really depends on how you handle it. Some leaders take this defection as a personal insult and make the exit as uncomfortable as possible. One of my previous bosses refused to speak to me for six weeks after I resigned! LinkedIn took a different approach. They invited ex-employees, who’d gone on to great new roles, to come back and share how their career had progressed with current LinkedIn employees. They celebrated the fact that, as a result of their time at LinkedIn, they’d accelerated their career. The US healthcare company DaVita make a conscious effort to keep in touch with ex-employees, with a view to re-hiring them at some stage. In fact, around 15% of their “new hires” have worked there before. Given that many of us are likely to move roles within our sector, great leaders can turn losing talent to a competitor into a positive.

How do you react when your great people leave you? Do you make it a positive experience and keep the door open for a return?

3. They don’t see their team as a ‘family’

We have a tendency to value “parental leaders”. Their motives are often admirable. They want to protect their people from an uncertain world, keep them safe, not upset them and above all, retain them in role and within the team. I have worked in some very parental cultures and I’m convinced that this ‘kindness’ is damaging for our people. Being over-protective means that we prevent our people from developing their ability to use their judgement and the resourcefulness that’s essential for succeeding in a disrupted world. The pace of change means that leaders cannot possibly map out career-path certainty for their staff. By retaining them in role for so long that they weaken their ability to secure stretching employment elsewhere is surely abdicating our responsibility as leaders? Great talent leaders avoid the parenting and instead of creating a ‘family’ with themselves at the head, they work together with their people as adults. In talent terms, this requires leaders to make an honest appraisal about which roles in their team may need to be refreshed within say, 12 months. It means putting career management responsibilities into the hands of the employees themselves. It means encouraging their people to become increasingly employable and attractive to the outside world and avoiding any misguided (and occasionally selfish) temptation to let them stay in role for too long. 

Are you parenting your people or are you treating them as adults?

4. They neglect their high-potentials

Ok, so not ‘neglect’ exactly, but our almost obsessive fixation on focusing on the needs and ambitions of the elite is out of touch with today’s world. The fact that 73% of high-potential programmes show no ROI hasn’t stopped them being implemented. The issues with placing our leadership bets on a favoured few are two-fold. Firstly, as a leader, you are going to struggle to identify high potential with any real accuracy. It’s not because you’re stupid, it’s just that we suffer from “rater bias” and so our assessment of who’s going to be great in the future and who isn’t, is always going to be somewhat flawed. Secondly, potential is always contextual and we have an increasingly limited understanding of what will be required in the future. No matter how good the instructions on the 9-box grid that your HR partner gives you, trying to identify and invest in a small group of people who will be the next generation of leaders is a fairly futile exercise. Great talent leaders of the future will steer clear of hi-po programmes and will instead think about how they create environments where the majority of their people can stretch, can play to their strengths and take advantage of opportunity.

Do you focus your talent efforts on the many or the few?

5. They don’t find their successors from within their team

Once seen as admirable, the concept of only recruiting from a narrow internal pool feels increasingly risky for today’s leader. When I was involved in creating leadership succession plans, the interjection of an external was either seen as a failing of the leader to produce an heir, or the need for a ‘benchmark’ candidate to make sure the internal nominee was up to scratch. But now, we would have to question the desirability of any succession plan with only current team members on it. With increasingly flat leadership structures, it is often really tough for the next tier to get the experience they need to take the top job. Only drawing from the names you know and trust results in a lack of diversity and ignores a wealth of talent with fresh perspectives. Of course it’s important to grow your own, but equally, great leaders of tomorrow will take a broader view of potential successors and will build a community of future talent that extends beyond the borders of their team and their company.

How are you fostering relationships with potential successors outside of your immediate team and outside of your company?

We need to cast off some of our misconceptions of what a great talent leader is and does. We need to let go of the idea that good leaders should be judged by how many people they retain and how long people stay with them. Retention and length of tenure will not necessarily equip our organisations for the future and the better leaders will be brave enough to acknowledge it.

If you want to find out more about how to manage talent in new ways, then you might be interested in the next Disruptive HR live training session on the 10th December 2020. Filled with practical ideas for how to do things differently. Find out more here.

My first job on leaving university was as a teacher in a college. Being a rookie, I would put heart and soul into coming up with well-structured lesson plans filled with interesting ways of delivering the content. Continue reading Succession Planning: Time to stop producing Mini-Me’s