[This is just one of a series of posts in direct response to the needs raised by those who completed my 2014 Blog Reader Survey. Enjoy!]

HR_SuccessionPlanning_Baton1There’s a lot of talk in organisations about succession planning. Raising up the next generation of leaders is important. Handovers, exit strategies, insuring against tragedy are all important. But the fact is, many, if not most, succession plans are a waste of time.

Why is that?

Succession Plans are used to provide for business and organisational continuity.

When you get the Succession Plan template from HR, or your CFO, or your Chief Continuity Planning officer, or your corporate office, or your accountant, it has space for you to complete key functions in your organisation and who will fill in that post if someone leaves.

Key executives – CEOs of larger organisations, for example – will often go through more in-depth processes, but for many people this becomes a rote exercise that yields no lasting results.

5 Reasons They Don’t Work

There are many elements that make most Succession Plans a waste of time. Here are 5:

  1. The plans are focused on continuity, rather than growth. “We have our Strategic Plan and our operating model in place. We need someone to lead it when Jim kicks the bucket.” The problem is, Jim has established his own methods, styles, purposes and aims at the firm. The next replacement may indeed be a carbon copy of Jim, but you guarantee that the operating environment for your firm and strategy will not be the same. You need someone who can help your organisation grow in ways that you couldn’t accomplish, see things you can’t and appreciate the wisdom of the past, while embracing the future.
  2. They do not fully investigate the talents and motivations of the nominated successors. A firm I had worked with had nominated 2 successors for each of the various management roles. The MD had even gone so far as to essentially anoint an heir-designate. Unfortunately, he had not properly assessed the individual’s needs, desires, circumstances and modus operandi, nor had he properly discussed a long-term development and transition plan with the candidate. This high potential individual, frustrated by his operating environment, unable to see how the ‘plan’ (really, an aspiration) could eventuate and seeking new challenges, decided to leave the company within a brief window. This caused substantial long-term uncertainty and upset at the company.
  3. They do not look outside of the organisation. Not all of the talent lies within. Nor are the trends. Apple sacked Jobs and then famously rehired him to ride a wave of company prosperity and corporate fame. They’re still one of the greatest firms on the planet, but they are not looking as fearsomely inventive as they once did. And yet, they have tried to do more of the same…maybe it’s time to change people and change tack.
  4. They do not plan for the catastrophic. Sundance Resources is one Australian example of a catastrophic event at the senior leadership level. In 2011, the entire board and a number of senior executives of this resources company, including the CEO, died in a plane crash over the African continent. Succession Planning was irrelevant, as the board could no longer appoint anyone as replacements. It took negotiation with the ASIC (governing corporations) to allow a former chairman to be appointed. He had a rocky start that could have been ameliorated through better planning (and better risk mitigation).
  5. They don’t account for the motivations of the people in the job. What can the person currently in the job do? Well, the list is endless:
    1. One senior leader in an organisation I was working in was determined that no-one smarter than she believed herself to be would rise to her level or above. Her jealousy prevented her from internally marketing and promoting the talents of her people. This squibbed the development of her team and the organisation and lead to a lot of staff turnover and lost years of growth.
    2. A leader I observed was extremely happy to promote according to his own ego needs. If the people beneath were compliant, agreeable and fawned over his leadership, then they were far more likely to be promoted, leveraged into positions and given privileges that allowed them to step above others in the hierarchy. It killed positive organisational dynamics and, once new hires clued in, led to substantial human capital bleed.
    3. One well-meaning leader I observed would nominate the most inappropriate people, because he wanted to encourage their retention. He retained them, but lost others. They were weaker candidates and did develop over the (extreme) long-term, but in the meantime, strong, higher potential candidates were left by the wayside.
    4. A firm that I assessed was demonstrably held back by the fears and anxieties of the managing partner. His fears of elevating both internal and external assistance over the star earning power of one of his chief people meant that he wasn’t willing to confront the behaviour of that person which was undermining the strategic development of human capital and of the firm. The firm ended up falling in a heap some time after I left, because the managing partner was never able to confront and engage with reality.
    5. I have witnessed many leaders who have simply put a name on ‘the succession plan’, sometimes without even a single discussion with the person nominated or sometimes without even informing the person. It’s like listing someone on your will to take care of your children, without even letting those people know you’ve done it. Disaster!
    6. The list goes on…

So Should I Give Up?

No! There are ways to develop strong succession, organisational continuity and growth. I’ll write about these in another post, but the key principle is: Growth, not mere continuity.


Why Most Succession Plans Are A Waste of Time
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