When I was leading Organizational Development strategies at my former company, we used to call it the “getting hit by a bus” scenario. Then someone decided that was too morbid so it was rephrased to the “winning the lottery” scenario. In either case, we used the scenario to help the C suite and other senior leaders to think through who would replace their most critical employees if they no longer worked at the company. If your best and brightest employee won the lottery one evening and didn’t show up for work the next day, how would operations continue with minimal disruption to employees, customers, and stakeholders?
Talent and succession planning is a critical organizational development strategy that companies can’t afford to ignore. I’ve helped leaders facilitate annual employee calibration and succession planning workshops that provide an opportunity to talk openly and candidly about employee talent. We use this annual meeting to talk about organizational vulnerabilities, identify high-potential employees, discuss replacement strategies, and share ideas for how we can help the best and brightest employees develop into future leaders. But a good succession planning system isn’t just a replacement planning process. It's an entire development process that ensures that the right people are identified for future roles and that they receive training and development to help them succeed.
If you recognize the need to implement talent and succession planning at your company, but aren’t sure where to start, here are some helpful best practices. If you are already doing this, but the process isn’t getting the desired results, read on.
1. Keep the process simple. Too much complexity (too many forms, a lot of perceived “busy work” in advance of the meeting) will lead to resistance. HRIS systems should be able to pull most of the information you need initially. Providing managers with a spreadsheet to log their performance and potential ratings and then plotting that information in a 9 box is often enough to get the process started.
2. Get leadership buy-in. If talent and succession planning are seen as just another HR activity, leaders may fail to see the critical importance of the process. Successful succession planning requires buy-in, collaboration, and support from the top down.
3. Make sure the process includes a discussion of key/critical positions. Key or critical roles are ones which hold a large amount of institutional or specialized knowledge, skills or talent. These roles are not easily replaced and pose a significant threat to the business if not filled. Identifying these roles and discussing replacement and development plans is a crucial part of the discussion.
4. Succession planning shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. I recommend convening cross-functional meetings for leaders to transparently and openly discuss employee performance and potential and to share succession plans. The advantage of doing this as a group is to uncover ways that talent can be deployed across functions for the good of the organization and often for the benefit of individual career paths.
5. Last but not least, recognize that succession planning and leadership development initiatives must be linked. You can’t identify successors and then just believe they will magically be ready for their future jobs when the time comes! High-potential employees should have clearly written development plans that identify what skills they need to grow, enhance or improve and how they will gain that experience. Resist the tendency to think that training classes are the answer to all development gaps. A comprehensive development approach may include the use of mentors, on the job training, external training, continuing education, stretch assignments, job rotations, and domestic or international assignments.
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