Moving Past 'Mini-Me'

By Martha Frase-Blunt Nov 1, 2003

HR Magazine, November 2003

Building a diverse succession plan means looking beyond issues of race and gender.

Employees whose companies claim a commitment to workforce diversity are often puzzled when they look up the ranks and see an array of cookie-cutter executives. While diversity programs typically focus on bringing difference through the door in the form of new hires, enthusiasm appears to evaporate when it’s time to choose the next CEO or vice president.

“Those being positioned as future leaders tend to look and act an awful lot like people in those top positions,” says Tom McKinnon, executive consultant with diversity consultants Novations/J. Howard & Associates in Boston. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a company’s diversity initiatives aren’t effective or authentic. “It simply reflects an adherence to traditional methods of succession planning,” he says.

Many otherwise forward-thinking companies expect employees with leadership skills to naturally float to the upper levels of the organization and hover there, ready to be anointed. But in reality, says McKinnon, employees typically arrive there because the system rewards those who have secured the best opportunities and assignments along the way. And it’s likely that those advantages came about because of the candidates’ resemblance to those they hope to replace.

Call it the “Mini-Me” syndrome. Executives seem to feel more comfortable when critical organizational roles are filled by people who are similar to the incumbent. That resemblance is often manifest in age, education, leadership style, industry experience, career trajectory and, of course, race and gender.

“These attitudes are understandable,” says Jason Richardson, CEO of Cutting Edge Information, a business intelligence and research firm in Durham, N.C. “It takes convincing evidence to persuade the top brass that changing the traditional makeup at the top is a good idea, particularly when homogeneity has worked well for the company for eons.”

The key is helping company thought leaders understand that the rewards of diversity are as palpable at the top as at every other level of the company. “When you demonstrate to managers and employees that it works at their level, and combine that with a unified commitment from the top, you start to see this being woven permanently into the corporate culture,” Richardson says.

Redefining the ‘Right Stuff’

Of course, the concept of diversity goes well beyond traits such as race, gender, age and background; it includes character and leadership qualities as well. Many companies have become hooked on a particular personality style at the top, appointing only those with the narrowly defined “right stuff” to leadership roles.

“We often find that organizations tend to promote certain personality types which suit their objectives well at this point in their development,” says Carol Kallendorf, president and founder of The Delta Associates in Austin, Texas, HR consultants in human and team performance who specialize in assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. “But what works for current market conditions won’t help them when business changes. They can’t shift gears and solve problems.”

The utility industry is an example. “Traditionally, those at the top have been Sensing-Thinking-Judging types—very strong at managing processes and data, but more traditional in their orientation. But this industry is transforming dramatically, with increased competition and the brokering and selling of power. Leaders have been thrust into a whole different environment.” Now these companies require a higher mixture of leaders with intuitive skills—the Myers-Briggs N type, she says.

Designing a succession planning process gives an organization the perfect opportunity to redefine leadership requirements to hit the right balance of problem solving, strategic thinking, quality improvement, visioning and team development. Few leaders will have all these qualities, but a diverse leadership team can cover them all.

“Assessment tools like Myers-Briggs can provide a strong foundation for talking about diversity that takes it out of the narrow, politicized realm of race and gender,” Kallendorf asserts.

Engaging the Benchwarmers

Typically, a company’s succession plan will include the ready now bench, the ready in one to three years bench and the ready in three to five years bench. Historically, women, people of color and other nontraditional candidates tend not to be in the ready now category but are warming the other benches, and there they languish.

“Companies take their eye off the ball,” says Sandra Bowe, global director for diversity and worklife at chemical manufacturer DuPont in Wilmington, Del. “Once they are satisfied with their succession plan, they don’t do much to continue to develop their bench or check it against their diversity goals.”

DuPont tackles the challenge of keeping future leaders engaged and ready through defined, continuous, dynamic metrics.

“The HR director in each specific business unit has the responsibility for its succession plan because they are closest to it,” Bowe says. “And, periodically, our corporate diversity office and top leadership look at the whole picture, from hiring to development, and try to illuminate the progress that’s being made and opportunities for improving the system. We keep measurement cards to check on our success in terms of representation.” In addition, at least once a year, “Employees capture and document their contributions to the company, verified by their supervisors. And that feeds into the employee development plan.”

Often, what greases employees’ progress toward the first-string bench is gaining the attention of a senior executive who informally sponsors or stewards candidates upward, ensuring they are considered for plum assignments and roles that showcase their skills. “But when that candidate doesn’t fit the mold of the typical nominee, the ‘sponsor’ is more likely to back off when challenged,” says McKinnon. “Senior executives must learn about and understand the dynamics of being an effective advocate for someone else. We recommend that companies offer their leaders some experiential training in this area.”

Lifting the Curtain

One barrier to creating succession plans that include diverse candidates is the secrecy commonly attached to the process. Companies fear morale damage among those not on “the list” and don’t want to expose their selection processes to widespread scrutiny. (See “Who’s Next.”)

Organizations must expose their succession planning process to the light, particularly if they are concerned about whispers of tokenism or affirmative action gone awry. “There will always be leaders who want to choose their successors by ‘feel,’ but those instincts need to be backed up by fact-based practices,” Richardson says. “When everyone who is promoted obviously meets certain credentials, there’s less to say.”

Organizations with the best succession planning practices tend to use a process that starts at the top and flows down to each level, he explains. “The plan consists of strong job descriptions of the position that will be filled, as well as a defined set of required skills and experiences that the ‘ideal’ candidate will have. It’s reviewed constantly through regular meetings, with input from a variety of people, and the findings become part of the corporate plan.”

While this approach doesn’t guarantee a diverse bench in itself, it can help eliminate favoritism. The critical factor is ensuring that the pool of candidates preparing for the next level is sufficiently heterogeneous. “If all is going right—mentoring, recruitment, training, job rotation—you will produce a pool of candidates that are qualified, and who didn’t get there by preferential treatment,” Richardson says.

An accountable and responsive succession plan has two key attributes: It allows candidates to take personal responsibility for their own development—including being able to self-nominate for key future openings—and it promotes the development of a career “road map” that defines the competencies for each individual on the succession plan and offers a plan for their continual development.

One organization that recognizes this is the American Red Cross, now in the midst of a comprehensive succession planning process. The first phase audited some 300 staff members serving at the level just below the president’s direct reports.

“This stage is modeled on General Electric’s famous talent inventory process,” says Cynthia Karst, executive director of organization leadership and development at the American Red Cross’ national headquarters in Washington. “We then overlaid our findings with a thorough assessment of our current and future business needs and began to look for the holes. Now that we understand the talent that’s in place, we’ll go on to figure out how to fill succession gaps, whether through internal development or external hiring.”

As part of the process, the company’s interim chief diversity officer, Debbera Hayward, met regularly with Karst and the other two executives charged with the organizational plan. “She would highlight existing resources like our Presidential Scholars Program, which helps develop exceptional employees—many of them women and people of color—and would bring us resumes of excellent employees from the field who might have escaped our attention. Her involvement made our process much more robust.” (For information about Hayward’s own progression at the American Red Cross, see the online version of this article at

Karst says she believes wholeheartedly in an open succession-planning process. “I have heard too many stories of employees who discovered their place in the plan only after leaving for greener pastures. This information is important for retaining and ensuring the continued development and motivation of your high performers.”

At the Red Cross, succession planning is a two-way conversation, as McKinnon recommends. “We have a performance-development process, linked to our organizational plan, that enables employees to communicate their career goals quite specifically,” Karst says. “It gets documented and becomes part of that individual’s personnel record. The career development plans that emerge from these discussions are very focused and rigorous, and they engage the employee directly.”

Karst notes that in her experience with other organizations, “a lot of times the follow-up conversations don’t occur, or the recommendations are limited to doing a single training session.”

Bowe agrees that succession planning “is a dual process. Half of career development is the responsibility of the individual; the other half is the responsibility of leadership.”

At DuPont, individuals’ career development plans are an integral part of the corporate succession plan. “Employees have the opportunity to let their career goals be known, and supervisors spotlight areas of improvement,” says Bowe.

Says McKinnon: “The key to unleashing the unlimited talent that exists in an organization is directly connected to the belief that most people—not the chosen few—are capable of high levels of performance. They then become free to focus their attention on building confidence and shaping effective effort—not on sorting and selecting the ‘cream of the crop.’ ”

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

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