Succession Planning

Today’s organizations are facing a curious paradox. While as the massive layoffs we hear about almost daily are creating a glut of employees, companies are also coping with an exodus of baby boomers from the workplace. These are often people in leadership positions whose skills, talents and experience are not easily replaced.

Organizations, both public and private, are going to require succession plans to deal with the potential leadership vacuum that the baby-boomer exodus will create. According to consultant Shauna Jones of PeoplePerformancePower, companies must create effective succession plans now to cope with the vacancies that will occur within the next three to five years.

Jones noted in a recent British Columbia Human Resources Management Association seminar that “succession management is the effort to ensure the continued effective performance of an organization, division, department or work group by making provision for the development, replacement and strategic application of key people over time”.

There are four elements necessary to an effective succession plan:

1. A comprehensive performance review system

To identify and prepare potential internal candidates for leadership roles, specific, ongoing feedback from managers is needed. This means providing a regular means for staff to know what they are doing well and what they aren’t. Monthly meetings to provide individual feedback are helpful, as are informal opportunities to provide feedback on an organization-wide basis. At the same time, performing annual or six-month reviews is essential in identifying whether employees are performing at optimal levels and whether they exhibit the kinds of abilities identified as important to leadership roles within the organization. Once a group of potential candidates has been identified for future leadership opportunities, it is necessary to assess them for their competency level and to create development plans designed to ready them for the next level.

2. An accurate assessment of candidate competence

To adequately assess potential succession candidates for key positions it is helpful to have articulated the set of skills necessary for the optimal performance of the leadership position. Then, accurate assessment can take place. There are many standardized tests that tap different leadership abilities and provide a reliable source of objective data to use to identify candidate strengths and weaknesses. For example, tests such as the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, which measures the ability to understand the implications of specific aspects of a situation, is an excellent tool measuring analytical thinking, a key leadership ability. Using standardized tests to measure clearly defined leadership strengths is essential in choosing and developing prospective candidates for vacant positions. Along with comprehensive performance reviews, these measures can provide an indication of the readiness and potential effectiveness of a candidate for succession.

3. A commitment to creating and implementing personalized development plans.

Once a candidate has been assessed for his or her level of expertise vis a vis the skills required for the role, it is important to then create a specific development program based on the outcome of the competence assessment. If, for example, the candidate’s results on the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, a measure of the quality of interactions with others and the ability to diagnose and deal with interpersonal difficulties are below par, a development plan can focus on this area. The specific goals of the plan may center on improvements in handling difficult conversations, giving or receiving feedback well or motivating others effectively depending on the results.

4. An awareness of the potential succession management pitfalls
There are several pitfalls associated with succession planning that can be avoided with a little forethought.

  • Firstly, it is important to gain management support. The identification of potential candidates, the articulation of the leader abilities required by the business, the assessment of personnel, regular performance reviews and the creation and follow-through with development plans all necessitate commitment from upper management.
  •  Secondly, communicating well with potential candidates is important. Ensure people are informed about available positions, the skills sought, the process whereby people are assessed and developed and the manner in which candidates will be selected for the position when the time comes.
  •  Thirdly, don’t assume that success in current positions will predict future success in higher positions in the organization. Being clear with candidates that past performance is helpful but by no means the sole or most important indicator of success in a new position is key to managing candidate expectations. Many candidates will refer to their glowing past performance reviews as indicative of a readiness for promotion. It is important that people understand that taking on key positions in the organization is based on predicted future ability to succeed and not on past behaviour. This means that being assessed for competencies at the higher level and adopting a development agenda is important. If a candidate is uncomfortable with recognizing the need for development to take on key roles, he or she is sending a signal that they are not ready to accept a more responsible role. This means ensuring that development is not just seen as shoring up a weakness but is a bona fide learning need that prepares a candidate for consideration. In this case, being developed for a role is a feather in one’s cap, not a sign that that one is not good enough to be a leader.
  • Finally, it is important to remember that succession management is about the development, replacement and strategic application of key people at all levels of the organization. Oftentimes, employers will concentrate efforts on the top level of the organization. Key positions exist at all levels of the organization and ensuring an effective succession management system for the organization as a whole is important.

    Succession management will continue to be important despite the recession and current labour glut. The risk of failing to identify, assess and develop potential leaders across the organization could risk a serious leadership vacuum that will weaken long-term business success.
    Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at
    Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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