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The Learning-Succession Connection

When business leaders use the phrase "succession planning," their thoughts probably don't fly immediately to their organizations' learning functions. But perhaps they should. Because effective succession planning really isn't just about planning at all. It's about the successful union of both planning and development. And companies' learning functions are all about development.

There is some variation among business pundits when it comes to defining what is meant by succession planning. Canada' HR Council for the Voluntary & Non-profit Sector takes a simple approach, declaring succession planning to involve identifying and developing "individuals with a high potential for taking on leadership positions." HR expert Susan M. Heathfield expands the notion of succession planning beyond the executive level, charging organizations with intentionally recruiting talent to be developed for "each key role within the company." But it is business thought leader Marshall Goldsmith who takes up the cause of augmenting planning with development, cautioning organizations against the pitfall of regarding succession programming complete merely because a plan has been hatched and documented. "Measure outcomes, not process," he advises, opining that a name change "from succession planning to succession development" might be in order.

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) (2010) teamed for a major research study into the roles that organizational learning functions play in the succession planning process. The two organizations used a definition coined by Russo and Mitchell (2005) to include "identifying key positions, candidates, and employees to meet the challenges that an organization faces" in both short- and long-term time frames. ASTD and i4cp added to the process "developing and advancing employees in the succession pipeline."

The Challenge for Organizations

As is the case with every organizational function in this economy-traumatized business environment, it is important to understand the relevance of succession planning. That is, identifying the business-critical issues that succession planning addresses and how its effective execution supports organizational performance, now and in the years ahead.

Common sense suggests that companies need trained and capable leaders if they are to fulfill their missions and succeed over the long term. Indeed, they do, but they need to be assured that qualified talent is available to fill mission-critical positions as well. These two objectives emphasize the future orientation that characterizes succession planning. But the effort isn't only about the leadership and other talent needed to ensure an organization's continuity.

The i4cp/ASTD study analyzed responses from 1,247 participants representing organizations across a wide range of industries, company sizes and structures. When asked about their firms' reasons for adopting a formal succession planning process, nearly 90% of respondents cited identification and preparation of future leaders (to a high or very high extent), while about three-quarters said they did so to ensure business continuity. At the same time, more than half said their organizations pursued succession planning in order to offer opportunities for advancement and to support retention efforts. Among the other concerns companies look to succession planning to address are projected shortages of talent, replacement of employees with retirements pending, preparation for company growth initiatives, and support for undertaking change. Taken together, those reasons clearly state that succession planning isn't only about preparing tomorrow's leaders. Rather, it's a much more organizational-pervasive undertaking.

Planning for successors, not just in the C-suite, but in all positions that are crucial to an organization's ability to execute its strategy, provides vital support for overall performance. Ensuring that key positions are filled with qualified individuals who have been properly trained and prepared to effectively handle the duties of those jobs provides a strong foundation for organizational productivity. Successful succession planning also makes it possible to maintain continuity in management. In turn, a solid and dependable structure within leadership and other essential positions adds to an organization's effort to utilize its resources (both financial and human) effectively. Such stability contributes to employee engagement, retention, recruitment and many other functions. Absent an effective succession planning program, an organization stands to lose a great deal.

Unfortunately, that kind of potential loss isn't just theoretical. Participants in the i4cp/ASTD study acknowledged that they have a long way to go in order to master succession planning. Only a scant 14% of respondents characterized their succession planning efforts as being effective to a high or very high extent. Just 17% said that their planning efforts extended far enough into their organizations to ensure (again, to a high or very high extent) that key positions had successors in their pipelines. Overall, more than half of the study participants admitted that their companies didn't even have a formal succession planning process (though about half of those say they plan informally). When it comes to succession planning, the challenges for today's companies are all too apparent. But that means that the opportunities are plentiful for organizational learning functions to take an active role in improving succession planning programs.

The Elements of Succession Planning

The tactics companies use to execute succession planning range from the slapdash - "hit and miss as needed" - to the constructive - "key performers are identified and given stretch assignments" - according to feedback from participants in the i4cp/ASTD research. But certain components emerged from the study that paint a picture of the ways that higher-performing organizations structure their programs.

Responsibility for succession planning most often resides with a firm's entire executive team, and many business leaders see this as a best practice. "Leaders/managers have succession planning objectives as part of their annual performance objectives which drive bonuses," explained a representative from one firm. Another said that "senior leadership understands that they own the process and are actively involved in coaching and developing high potential leaders." Both approaches illustrate how the company brass can be encouraged to take a hands-on role in succession efforts.

In about one in four organizations, responsibility for succession planning falls to the HR department. While HR involvement makes sense because of the function's know-how in talent-related issues and programming, many sources opine that it is senior leaders' active participation that is a key underpinning for optimal succession outcomes. Perhaps it is that mindset that drives selection of candidates for the succession pipeline. Three out of four firms in the i4cp/ASTD study confirm that their favored method is nomination or selection by senior leaders. Some companies acknowledge that they automatically associate designation as a high-potential employee with the succession pipeline, while others say they rely on nominations made by workers' managers.

The Learning Function Is Crucial to Candidate Development

Once a candidate is chosen for the succession program, the role of the learning function becomes central to achieving success. Says a learning leader from an Ohio manufacturing firm, "Our function provides the structure, tools, and process for succession planning." Adding to that description, organizational learning and development director and study participant Lesa Becker of Idaho's Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center explains that her role ranges from talent-review participation to "design and delivery of learning and development plans."

Other study participants echoed Becker's pronouncement, with more than 55% saying their learning function defines content for leadership development programs to a high or very high extent. Almost half of companies look to learning for actual delivery of training, while others seek the function's involvement in integrating succession planning with other talent management programs and with managing succession efforts. Researchers from i4cp and ASTD noted that any involvement by organizational learning functions correlated with succession planning success, but recommended that chief learning officers "work with other talent leaders as well as with the organization's top executives" to ensure integration of succession planning with other talent management programs and to align development with organizational business strategies.

Indeed, learning professionals will welcome the interaction with other talent leaders in order to ensure that succession programs function effectively since multiple obstacles can impede optimal outcomes. The most-often-cited barrier to succession planning success that emerged from the i4cp/ASTD study was a lack of sufficiently robust development plans for candidates. Certainly, involving the learning function and its capabilities in planning and delivering content can help organizations avoid this common pitfall.

Like many talent programs, succession planning can suffer from a dearth of metrics to track results. One in four study participants admitted problems in this area. Other obstacles in the way of good succession planning outcomes include budget woes, issues related to program communication, lack of program reach beyond management levels and problems tracking and sharing data about succession candidates.

Learning professionals can prove instrumental in addressing those and other barriers to succession planning by applying a disciplined approach to the overall development process. As they do with other organizational training programs, learning professionals begin with rigorous planning that helps define the succession process and that includes formulation of custom development programs for each candidate. Learning also can add its voice to those of other talent leaders to encourage senior management's investment in and support for succession planning.

When senior leaders do become involved in candidate development, learning professionals may be called upon to help them prepare for roles as mentors and coaches. A close alliance between leaders and the learning function can help to ensure that candidate development activities actually address the needs identified for each candidate and are relevant to specific business challenges the organization faces, while also providing oversight to maintain consistency and quality in the development process.

Which strategies put "success" in succession planning?

In concluding the report of their study, i4cp and ASTD pointed to "the need to make development a more critical part of the succession planning process and the need to integrate succession planning with other talent management programs." Those two ideas emerged as the core findings behind the inquiry into succession planning.

Few organizations can speak to the value of integrating succession planning and talent management as knowledgeably as i4cp member company McDonald's Corporation. In fact, the fast food organization built its integrated talent management programming on a foundation of leadership development and succession planning. In an interview with i4cp, McDonald's Vice President, Leadership Institute and Global Talent Management David Small described the company's early interest in developing leadership talent as a means of accomplishing succession planning for McDonald's top management. Beginning with a focus on a "more robust performance management system," Small says that the company added a competency model to ensure that "competencies are aligned with our development strategy."

McDonald's early succession planning efforts proved vital to company continuity when the firm lost two CEOs within a single year's time. With a process already underway, McDonald's was able to name successors to both men within hours of their passing. Small notes that the "very unfortunate situation" gave the company's succession and talent programs "the firepower we needed to move forward with efforts that might not have moved as quickly otherwise." Given that history, current McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner's prioritizing leadership development and talent management speaks to the company's ability to learn from (and continue to strengthen) its succession planning experiences.

Companies can take to heart the lessons learned by McDonald's and devote greater focus to preparing viable leadership pipelines. The i4cp/ASTD study yielded a number of helpful recommendations to fuel such efforts. Some strategies likely to contribute to succession planning success include:

  • Securing senior leaders' championship for succession programs, including leaders' active participation in development activities.
  • Extending succession planning efforts deeper into the organization in order to address critical roles and those for which talent may be hard to find.
  • Determining appropriate metrics to gauge program effectiveness and applying them in a disciplined and consistent manner.
  • Honing the candidate selection process to include employees who embody high potential for leadership and to solicit nominations from company managers.

Finally, organizations are likely to enhance their outcomes by making learning leaders an active part of succession efforts, especially when it comes to shaping and delivering development programs that provide succession candidates with meaningful and relevant content designed to prepare them for the unique challenges that future leadership in their particular organizations will bring.

This article was originally published in the March 2011 edition of Chief Learning Officer magazine.

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.