Some Executives Doubtful Succession Plans Really Work

By Bill Leonard Feb 18, 2015
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When you get right down to it, corporate succession plans are designed to develop and promote business leadership. But what happens if an organization’s leaders don’t have any faith in the succession process to begin with?

If you think this scenario sounds far-fetched, think again. In a recent survey on succession management conducted by Korn Ferry, a global leadership and talent consulting group, approximately one-third (36 percent) of senior-level executives responded that they were satisfied or very satisfied with their company’s succession management programs, while less than one-quarter (23 percent) reported that their organization had developed a strong pool of candidates ready to fill top leadership positions.

It’s not difficult to extrapolate from the Korn Ferry data that nearly two-thirds of the more than 1,000 executives surveyed are less than satisfied with their organization’s succession plan initiatives. The results raise the obvious question: Where is the disconnect between succession planning strategies and the concrete results that executives expect?

“Succession management programs often fail because they’re static,” said R.J. Heckman, president of Korn Ferry’s leadership and talent consulting business. “Programs must look beyond a snapshot in time of current talent and business needs to create an ongoing, systemic yet agile succession management approach.”

In addition, the survey researchers found that most corporate succession plans applied only to senior-level management. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of the respondents said their organization’s succession management plan only included the title of vice president and above.

“There’s significant risk when succession management programs don’t go deep enough into an organization,” said Jim Peters, Korn Ferry lead for global succession management. “I have often said to CEOs: ‘There are several potential CEOs within your organization. Do you know who they are? And if you know, what would you do now to ensure that they will have the skills and capabilities to lead the business in 15 or 20 years?’ ”

The results of the study indicate that many employers may fail to recognize and adequately develop leadership potential, which in turn can alienate and discourage employees who may be looking for an opportunity to prove themselves. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of the survey’s respondents said that their organizations are not adequately addressing the risks of discouraging potential leaders.

Beth Armknecht Miller, founder and president of Executive Velocity, an Atlanta-based leadership development consulting group, isn’t surprised by the Korn Ferry findings. She said that, in her experience, most business leaders are cynical about the effectiveness of succession plans. Her leadership-consulting business focuses on small to medium-sized companies, and she said that in many of those organizations, the frustrations of managers and supervisors who aspire to senior leadership roles is apparent.

“Executives’ dissatisfaction over succession plans in smaller- to medium-sized employers is definitely higher,” she said.

The perception that senior leaders are entrenched and unwilling to release control of the business is driving a good portion of this dissatisfaction, according to Miller.

“Many managers who are interested in expanding their leadership roles feel that opportunities are limited and there’s no upward mobility,” she said. “And in these situations, frustration is bound to set in.”

One way to ease what some have called a “logjam effect” is to include an off-boarding process in an organization’s succession plan, Miller said. She added that while many employers might do an excellent job of identifying and then cultivating leadership talent, one of the biggest mistakes businesses can make is not to offer career transition support for senior-level managers who are approaching retirement age.

“There really must be a clear path on how leaders can extract themselves from the day-to-day operations,” Miller said. “I have heard executives ask, ‘What do I do next, and what’s out there for me after this?’ ”

It’s therefore important to coach business leaders on the next chapter of their life, she added. For example, executives should be encouraged to look for volunteer opportunities that appeal to their interests or consider teaching opportunities, such as adjunct professorships at local colleges and universities.

Mentorship programs can be another good way to engage business leaders who have hit retirement age but aren’t willing to quit working. Other sources have noted that senior-level mentors can help develop an organization’s leadership potential by providing critical institutional knowledge.

“It’s all about exiting well and [being] able to take the knowledge and experience gained through the years and put it to excellent use somewhere else,” Miller said. “Problem is, most businesses don’t focus on this aspect of succession planning.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer at SHRM.

Follow Bill at @SHRMBillLeonard.

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