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Lots of Promises, But Progress is Slow for Equity in Succession Planning

A survey fielded in June 2020 by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) showed that approximately 90% of the 216 organizations polled planned to act on racial inequities in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent civil unrest that transpired in the summer of 2020.  

i4cp recently revisited how well those promises are being kept by surveying on the status of the actions many organizations pledged eight months ago to pursue. A total of 169 professionals responded, and as we recently reported, the results were mixed:  

  • Many organizations show steady focus and commitment to DE&I-related actions, including a sizable percentage (41%) that added an executive role with express responsibility for DE&I strategy (i.e., Chief Diversity Officers)—with another 10% planning to do so soon.
  • The bad news is that while organizations are still prioritizing equity pledges and working towards systemic change, some high-impact actions have taken a backseat to other priorities, such as the continued challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some of those high-impact actions that are still lagging include spreading the focus of inclusion and equity pledges to all underrepresented groups, tapping into ERGs/BRGs to develop action plans, and conducting bias audits of existing organizational norms and practice.(For more on how to conduct a bias audit, see i4cp’s member-only bias audit checklists.) 

A further look at this most recent data finds succession planning as another high-impact diversity practice area that seems to be lagging at many organizations. In the latest survey we asked: "What succession management action(s) has your organization taken or planning to take to help advance diverse?" Unfortunately, it appears that progress on this critical front over the past year has been disappointingly slow at many organizations.  

The most common practice that nearly 50% of respondents said their organizations have already implemented is not surprising as it is a relatively simple one: establishing consistent interview questions during the succession planning process. This takes some effort to be sure, but in essence it is a one-off task that then only requires periodic review. 

Admittedly many other succession practices are harder to change, but the lack of indicated progress from our surveys is striking. For example, 33% of survey respondents indicated they their organizations had already implemented targeted development (e.g., sponsorship, coaching, mentoring, and/or training) of individuals in underrepresented groups, and that is up from the 19% who indicated they had done so in a survey conducted in January 2020.  

But that number is essentially unchanged from the results (34%) we saw from the same question in June 2020. A possible positive from the latest results is that an additional 35% of current survey respondents indicated they plan to implement such targeted development, and another 15% are considering doing so. 

A practice that definitely seems stalled is broadening the sourcing of talent for succession (e.g., eliminate requirements that limit applicants and potential talent pools). Here our survey results indicated 36% of organizations were doing so in January 2020, 37% in June 2020, and 33% most recently--essentially a flat line. All we can do is hope to see growth here as 21% indicated that they plan to broaden their sourcing of talent for succession, and another 21% indicated they are considering doing so. We also know anecdotally that diverse executive talent sourcing and market mapping is a challenge at many organizations who’ve reached out to i4cp’s Executive Search team

One way to broaden the sourcing of talent for succession is to actually require a diverse slate of succession candidates for each role. There doesn't seem to be strong appetite for that approach yet, as only 32% of respondents indicated their organizations were doing this in June 2020, and that number has decreased to only 21% most recently (albeit with another 21% planning to do so and another 32% considering it). On the positive side, however, requiring diverse selection panels/interviewers did increase, up from 27% to 36%, with another 17% planning to do so and 29% considering it. 

Likewise, two other practices had promising numbers back in June 2020, but seem to have slipped since then:

  • Auditing job requirements and qualifications for bias (e.g., “like-me” traits, schools/universities sourced, gender biased leadership traits). In June 2020, 47% of survey respondents indicated their organizations were doing this, but that has dropped to only 27% more recently (with another 24% planning to do so and another 27% considering it). While this squared with the afore mentioned lag in bias auditing in general, i4cp members can access the Bias Audit Checklist for Succession Planning for more on the many ways succession can be audited to create more equitable processes.
  • Incorporate diverse talent development and succession requirements in all people managers’ performance goals. In June 2020, 44% of survey respondents indicated their organizations were doing this, but that has dropped to a meager 17% more recently (with another 28% planning to do so and another 29% considering it). 

While we did see some momentum in the adoption of equity practices in succession planning during the first half of 2020, continued growth in the implementation of these practices seems to have stalled, and in some cases perhaps reversed. Of course, this depends on how well companies continue to stay focused on their stated plans, but this could be a concerning sign, especially since succession practices can be such a powerful—and relatively uncontroversial—avenue for women and racial minorities to achieve long-lasting improvements in leadership roles, pay levels, and other key aspects of work success.

Thomas Stone is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp

Thomas Stone
Tom is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, with over two decades of experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker in the learning and development and broader human capital industry. He is also author of multiple books, including co-authoring Interact and Engage! 75+ Activities for Virtual Training, Meetings, and Webinars (second edition from ATD Press, 2022).