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Learn succession planning best practice

Rullion spoke to Senior HR professional, Diane Jolly, who provided a run-down on succession planning lessons learned. These are her top tips:

1. There is no one-size-fits-all model

Just as every business has its own unique culture, there is no succession blueprint that works for all. Diane says size is not a barrier to an effective plan – the important thing is to make sure you have one in the first place but be pragmatic about it. “It really comes down to appreciating the risk,” she says. “Smaller businesses need to get creative – for example, stretching employee’s roles by increasing their development activities and giving them critical business problems to work on so that their development is on-going is equally an effective way to develop people to take on different/bigger roles.”

2. Take a top down and bottom up approach

Traditional succession planning involves consulting senior leaders about who they think will best fit critical roles. However, this approach in isolation can be limiting – for example, there is no point in earmarking Sarah from sales as the next head of department if Sarah would actually prefer a transfer to communications. Diane advocates more transparency with staff, although acknowledges that it can be a tricky balancing act. “Development activities and career progression are obviously seen as key factors to attract and retain employees, but there is the issue of managing expectations, which makes it challenging to be completely transparent.”

3. Link Succession Planning to Talent Development

“If you can pinpoint the skills needed in your business today versus tomorrow, and can feed that back into your talent planning activity, then you will already be working on recruiting people who have the skills you will need in the future,” Diane says. “Succession planning should involve talking about why certain individuals in roles are effective, and what skills are needed as a business transitions. Taking this into account is one way to ensure you do not continue to perpetuate skill gaps.”

4. Have a multi-layered plan

Succession planning is by nature a medium and long-term process – the leader you require in ten years’ time may be in a junior role today. “It’s not just about what is happening at the top of an organisation – think about the next layer down and the next layer after that,” Diane says. “Unless you go through the layers, you may not have visibility of really great people.”

The Biggest Mistakes Companies Make

While most companies accept that succession plans are essential, how is it possible to avoid the kind of pitfalls that leave us in the lurch? Along with relying on an overly top-down approach, as discussed above, Diane says the most common mistakes include:

1. Treating succession planning as a HR exercise

While the HR team is responsible for developing and supporting a plan, managers need to be actively involved; not just paying lip service. “The business needs to own the process,” Diane stresses. “HR can and will facilitate the process, but it will only work well if the business owns it. When they own it, they are committed to the end results”.

2. Refusing to see or accept change

As Diane found when she started her search for a new MD, the attitude of ‘we haven’t done that before’ can be a huge obstacle. “When an employee has worked at a business for five or ten years, they are often seen as suited to a particular role. It can be hard for their manager and others to visualise them in a different or bigger role,” she says. “Sometimes, it seems easier to prefer an external candidate because a manager doesn’t want a talented individual to move-on - the business ‘owns’ the talent, not the manager.”

It’s an On-going Process: Get on with it

The key lesson Diane has learned through her experience is, “there is no better time to start developing a succession plan than today; companies get the maximum reward when they review and update their plans on a regular basis.”

“The sooner you know your succession plan, the sooner you will know where the gaps are, or are likely to emerge. Only then can you start to improve the effectiveness of your talent plan”, she says. “You will be able to identify roles which have no obvious successor. You will probably find niche skills you need to develop. The sooner you have this understanding, the sooner you can be thinking about how to address these issues.”

Diane’s final tip: “Succession planning is an on-going, dynamic process because people change and the business changes. If you are doing it properly, you know that it will never end.”

Look out for more articles on SWP, how to implement a plan into your business and the benefits of succession planning.