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Retool Your Succession Planning to Meet Future Challenges

Executives believe succession planning is vital for reaching their business objectives, surveys show. But few companies actually have formal plans. If they do, the plans are often outdated or ignored.

Organizations that don't plan for their future leadership needs will be ill-prepared to withstand today's changing economic and social forces, a leadership consultant told a group of HR professionals before the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition began here on Sunday.

"What makes you successful in the past is not going to help you survive in the future," said Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal of Interchange Group, a consulting company in Los Angeles.

In a preconference workshop, she urged HR professionals to build a business case for succession planning and guide business leaders to identify the competencies that future leaders will need. With executives' input and buy-in, HR professionals can prepare a career development plan for high-potential employees.

But that's not as easy as it sounds. The mere mention of succession planning can prompt a host of fears and emotions in current leaders, causing them to avoid the subject. What happens when a leader leaves and the position isn't filled quickly? Morale drops, productivity suffers and turnover increases. Sometimes you have to lose a valuable employee before current leaders understand the importance of succession planning, Robinson said.

While each industry is different, future leaders in general must be able to deal with current economic volatility. They must also be able to embrace new technology and the changes that automation will bring to their industry, she said. And, they have to be adept at crisis management as social media empowers individual customers and employees to immediately and publicly highlight mistakes within their organizations. Finally, they have to be change leaders, persuading their workforce to move in a different direction, as well as diplomats, bringing people together during a time of extreme political polarization.

To help ensure a successful process, you should:

  • Encourage senior leaders to participate, and train them on the importance of developing a culture focused on talent management.
  • Agree on a clear definition of a successful leader. Instead of relying on job descriptions, build a "success profile," a one-page outline of what competencies and skill sets are needed to be successful. Interview leaders about what makes someone successful in that role. When they don't agree on candidates, bias can creep in. Leaders will choose their favorites to replace them, even if those favorites don't have the needed skills, she said. Having a formal succession plan can help make the process more objective.
  • Ask current leaders to identify what competencies future leaders need to be able to meet business goals. What gaps exist between the current talent pool and future talent needs? "Establish credibility by putting their needs first. Your expertise is critical, but it doesn't matter unless you position yourself as working to meet their needs," she said.
  • Keep succession planning simple. Robinson is not a fan of the 9-box grid, a tool commonly used to assess talent within organizations and for succession planning. Executives are busy and will disengage if the process is too complicated. She uses a 4-box grid instead.
  • Be transparent. Let high-potential employees know they are being developed for higher-level positions, but don't make promises. You don't know for sure that today's jobs will even exist next year, she said. However, if you don't give them the career development opportunities, they'll feel ignored and will leave.
  • Update succession plans regularly. Have regular conversations with leaders about their roles and document the changes.

One workshop participant said she plans to use Robinson's advice to help prepare a succession plan at her fast-growing company, which currently has none.

[SHRM members-only sample presentation: Succession Planning]

"This will give me the structure to go back and be able to engage the upper management and executives and get their buy-in by asking what their goals are and then creating a framework from there," said Pamela Salewski, HR business partner at Good Harbor Management LLC, a property management company in Denver. Her HR team is onboarding 30 to 40 people a month to work at newly acquired apartment complexes.

On Wednesday, more succession planning advice will be offered at the Annual Conference. Kelly Renz, president and chief executive officer at Novo Group Inc., in Brookfield, Wis., will present a concurrent session on succession planning, titled "Demystifying Succession Planning: It's Easier Than You Think."

She notes that succession planning is as important for risk mitigation as it is for talent development. Although many companies only include executive positions, HR professionals should include any key roles that, if suddenly vacated, could interrupt the business. Those include roles that manage major client accounts or direct building operations.

"Unfortunately, these levels may often be overlooked, exposing organizations to great risk," she said.


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