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. 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 with 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 in HR school* that the succession plan is one of the things I had to do. Dutifully, I 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.
Real life has a nasty habit of messing up our plans
But, just as my students messed up my lesson plans, so our 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 was deriving from a nicely completed succession plan was an illusion.
Our succession planning is mis-matched to the world we are planning for
The bigger wakeup call was the dawning realisation that the flaw in my succession plans didn’t just come from the successors, but from 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:
– no matter how hard I tried to get leaders to think beyond their own teams, they would invariably identify the guys they’d been working with for forever. They knew them, they trusted them, they knew that they could already do some of their job and sometimes, they’d even promised them they could have it. The myopic results served to reinforce the existing silos and would have prevented any fresh perspectives and skills.
Leaders choosing their successors are rarely troubled by the fact that things will almost certainly change
– their succession planning was rarely troubled by any thoughts that their role, their team or their responsibilities might change. They chose their anointed ones based on the status quo remaining well after their departure. Even if I ventured to suggest that the way they had been doing the role might not make sense in the near future, they would nod politely and ignore me. I get this. It’s hard enough to think that anyone can replace you let alone be a bigger or better version.
– just as they struggled to think about how the role would change, their succession efforts often led to them identify a collection of “mini-me’s” in terms of leadership style and behaviour. Again, an understandable preference for sticking with what you know – but really crap for a diverse pipeline and the breadth of perspectives that was needed.
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 might provide leadership in the future. I’d like to highlight three:
1. Asking leaders to collaborate on identifying future talent for their top roles.
Instead of succession planning within silos, why not 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.
2. Building 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.
3. 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 led 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. I really shouldn’t have felt so pleased with myself. Succession plans, like so many of our talent categorisation processes (eg: the 9 Box Grid) 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.
*I don’t mean a real HR school.
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As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.