succession planning

How to Fix Inadequate Succession Plans

High-performance organizations deserve kudos for the portfolio of approaches they use to develop rising executives, but a recent study from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) suggests they also deserve a slap on the wrist for allowing weak succession plans to impede the acceleration of that executive talent.

How High-Performance Organizations Accelerate Executive Leadership Development found that one of the top hindrances to leadership development acceleration is a succession plan that just doesn’t reach down far enough into the organization. Further, survey respondents said that leaders aren’t held accountable for adhering to those succession plans. These strategic misses put an organization at risk for being unprepared for sudden departures and for eroding trust in leaders from succession candidates.

Create a deeper succession plan

Lest you think that inadequate or superficial succession plans are a hallmark of low-performance organizations (LPOs) alone, the survey found that this hindrance also plagues more than half of high-performance organizations (HPOs), making it a top barrier to the acceleration of executive leadership development (of 17 surveyed) for both HPOs (51%) and LPOs (70%). Following are actions that organizations can take in designing succession plans:

  • Involve both the executive team and human capital professionals in creating the succession plan
  • Map out which positions (executives and critical roles) require succession candidates
  • Determine how many potential successors are to be named for each position and develop selection criteria
  • Create a custom development plan of specific experiences for each potential successor

Critical roles exist at all levels of the organization, so it makes sense to ensure continuity in these key roles throughout the firm, not just at the executive level.

Adhere to the succession plan created

Just as problematic as not having adequate succession plans is putting such plans in place and then not adhering to them. Nearly four of 10 survey respondents said that not holding leaders accountable for adhering to succession plans is a hindrance to leadership development acceleration.

One reason for this lack of adherence to the succession plan could be that too many pipeline candidates aren’t adequately prepared for a move, making acceleration of leadership development all the more important. When an executive vacancy is filled with someone other than a planned successor, the fallout may include a surprised and disappointed planned successor, blockage in the successions that might have transpired in the levels below, resentment toward the named successor and eroding trust in the entire executive team.

Following are actions to help ensure that succession plans are (or can be) adhered to:

  • Create a specific timetable for the development plan of each potential successor
  • Designate successors as ready in one year, ready in two years, etc. to simplify identification of candidates for planned retirements of top executives
  • Be transparent about the length of the preparation process and readiness criteria
  • Create a “Plan B” for emergency successions, including interim assignments

The wisdom of adhering to a succession plan is directly related to the quality and preparedness of the successors. A solid succession plan helps to identify candidates whose development may need to be accelerated as well as the key competencies that require strengthening and a timetable for producing ready-to-serve succession candidates.

Succession planning is a top human capital issue

For five consecutive years, succession planning surfaced as one of the top 10 human capital issues, according to Building a Change Ready Organization: Critical Human Capital Issues 2013, the most recent iteration of i4cp’s annual analysis of critical human capital issues.

Still, recognizing its importance alone is not enough. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents to the critical human capital issues study said succession planning is important, but just 25% said their employees were effective at it. That study revealed about half of HPOs (54%) and one-third (34%) of LPOs were taking their succession planning initiatives to layers below the executive level.

The barriers revealed in i4cp’s study on accelerating executive leadership development show that organizations can increase their succession planning effectiveness by creating deeper succession plans and adhering to them. Organizational agility boils down to preparedness, and preparedness is enhanced by creating a thorough succession plan that can be executed and by including a contingency plan when it cannot.

Download the complimentary report now. (i4cp members, download the full report here).