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Tips for implementing a succession plan into your organisation

HR needs to lead the way with their business’ succession planning, although it's common for even the most high profile leaders to not want to think about it - particularly if discussions are linked to their own role. But through understanding the consequences of not having a plan in place, HR can educate colleagues on both the time, and possible associated costs, that can be saved in the long run.

We asked senior HR professional, Diane Jolly, to provide a run-down of the main lessons she has learned from her experience of succession planning during her career. 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 all. Big multi-nationals may have the money and resources to develop extensive frameworks, and to invest heavily in individual coaching, mentoring and courses, but what about an SME with a handful of employees? 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. “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.”

2. Take a top down and bottom up approach
Traditional succession planning involves consulting people at the top about who they think will best fit critical roles. However, this approach in isolation can lead to major blunders – for example, there is no point in earmarking the go-getting 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 some of the key factors to attract and retain employees, but there is the issue of managing expectations, which makes it hard to be completely transparent,” she says. “However, if you can aim for a level of transparency with staff, the process will work better.”

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 people are effective, and what skills are needed as a business transitions. If you take this into account, you are not going to 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. “Don’t just concern yourself with what is going on at the top of the organisation – think about the next layer down and the next layer down,” Diane says. “Somebody you employed in the past six months who has come off your graduate programme may have oodles of potential. Unless you go down through a number of layers, you will not be aware of some 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, management needs to be actively involved – not just paying lip service. “The business needs to own the process,” Diane stresses. “HR will facilitate the process but it will only work well if the business owns it, because when they own it, they are obviously committed to the results.”

2. Refusing to see or accept change
As in the situation Diane described when an organisation was looking for a new MD,  the attitude of ‘we don’t do things that way around here’ 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, and 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 than an internal one. It can be because a leader doesn’t want a person to move on because they are quite happy with them performing their existing role. They forget that the business ‘owns’ the talent, not the leader, which can be quite inhibiting and ultimately could lead to losing a talented employee.”

It's an On-going Process - Get on with it! 

The key lesson Diane has learned through her experience is that there is no better time to start developing a succession plan than today – and companies need to accept that they will  have to review and update their plans on a regular basis.

The sooner you work out a succession plan, the sooner you will know where the gaps are, or are likely to emerge, and what you will need to do to fill them,” she says. “You will be able to identify roles for which you do not have an obvious successor, and determine if there are niche skills you need to develop. The sooner you have this understanding, the sooner you can be thinking of how to address these issues.”

An action plan for an employee should focus on two or three aspects of their development over six to twelve months, and then be reviewed to see if goals are being met and it is still up-to-date with the company’s requirements and the individual’s aspirations.

“I have seen some companies treat succession planning as an activity to tick off the to-do list – it shouldn’t be,” Diane says. “Succession planning is an on-going, dynamic process because people change and the business changes, and these changes never end. If you are doing it properly, you know that it will never end.”