Succession Planning Takes Work

by Michael Timms


Recruiting is broken! It is costly, outdated and misused. Succession planning, important to any business’s long-term success, is the underused, less expensive and more effective alternative to recruiting for difficult-to-find management positions. Realizing this dream, however, requires putting in place a solid road map so companies can identify their high-potential players and game plan for 2017.

Confirm the Players and the Game Plan

By far the most common practice in succession planning is to have a Talent Review Meeting at least twice a year. The Talent Review Meeting serves two primary purposes:

  • Confirming the players. It provides senior leaders with the chance to weigh in on whether someone is actually a High Potential (potential successor), or whether there may be others whose career development should be fast-tracked. This creates a more accurate and consistent assessment of High Potentials across different divisions and geographies.
  • Confirming the development plans. The more people who are thinking about how to develop High Potentials, the better. Stephanie Hollingshead of Sierra Systems has shared that, as High Potential development plans were discussed, senior executives volunteered to work with each other’s High Potentials on certain development items because senior executives already interacted with them to some degree.

Some organizations hold talent review meetings three to six times a year. Most, however, hold them at least twice a year because issues related to people change too frequently to revisit only once a year. For example, people exit the organization, promotions occur, and people’s “flight risk” (concerns about them leaving) can change quickly. These meetings are most often stand-alone meetings, rather than part of the regular corporate strategy meeting. And they are often held off-site in order to reduce distractions.

Talent Committee

In smaller organizations, the executive team members make up the “Talent Committee” — those invited to the Talent Review Meeting to discuss the development plans and progress of the company’s High Potentials. In larger organizations, directors or middle managers may be responsible for initially identifying high-potential employees, but they may not be invited to the Talent Review Meeting. In these cases, the directors and middle managers meet with their respective executive (or other designated member of the Talent Committee) to review and discuss their selection of High Potential candidates. The executive will then relay that information at the Talent Review Meeting.

Talent Review

The agenda for a Talent Review Meeting is straightforward. Each member of the Talent Committee reviews the list of High Potentials who directly or indirectly report to them, and others are invited to provide feedback on:

  • Whether they should be considered a High Potential,
  • What their strengths and weaknesses are,
  • Which positions they should be considered for,
  • What development activities will help prepare the High Potential for success in future roles, and
  • When they expect the High Potential to be ready for his or her next move.

Tips from the Pros on Running a Successful Talent Review

The old adage rings true: Experience really is often the best teacher. Here are a few things others have learned that will make your Talent Review Meeting run more smoothly:

  • Many organizations report that it is a good practice for the VP of human resources to meet with other senior leaders before the Talent Review Meeting to do a preliminary review of their High Potentials. This helps senior leaders be better prepared for the meeting. Additionally, gaining another perspective on the preliminary selection of High Potential candidates before the meeting reduces the chances that other members of the Talent Committee will have radically different viewpoints (which runs the risk of derailing the meeting).
  • One organization reported taking as long as 30 minutes to review each High Potential; one organization reported taking as little as five minutes. Five minutes is not enough time to provide meaningful feedback on a High Potential and his or her development plan. A good practice would be to allow at least 10–15 minutes to review each High Potential and the individual’s development plan.
  • When facilitating the Talent Review, instead of displaying all the preliminary assessments at once, it’s better to reveal the information for one High Potential at a time. This helps focus the group’s attention on the individual being discussed, as opposed to looking at a huge table full of data.
  • If there is a large group of managers participating in the Talent Review, it may be more efficient to break people into groups. Within each group, once each person has reviewed and received feedback on his or her High Potential candidates and on their development plan, switch groups and do it again. Not every manager will have the opportunity to review every other manager’s High Potential candidates, but this format will provide enough of a broad perspective to accomplish the goal of calibrating assessments.
  • One company invited its High Potentials to have lunch with the executive team at the Talent Review Meeting. This gave the heads of various divisions the chance to meet High Potential candidates whom they would not have otherwise met. In many cases, these lunch meetings led to follow-up meetings to discuss opportunities for the High Potentials in other divisions. It was a great way to facilitate lateral moves and career advancement opportunities for High Potentials, one that may not have surfaced through other means. The lunch meetings introduced executives to individuals with skill sets who could solve their problems and fill important needs.
  • There may be relatively few High Potentials identified during the inaugural Talent Review Meeting. If this is the case, take the time to discuss whether the assessments are too stringent (e.g., are there more people who should be included as High Potentials?). If the assessments are accurate, then discuss what you are going to do to have more High Potentials to discuss in six months. Also, consider reviewing people who are one further hierarchal level down.
  • Don’t forget to consider lateral moves. The VP of human resources of a large pharmaceutical company told a story about the head of marketing who took a lateral move to become the head of logistics. The head of marketing was reluctant, but senior management encouraged him to take the position. Within two years of taking the new assignment, this new head of logistics recommended that the whole function be outsourced. That recommendation probably wouldn’t have come from a career logistics person. He was not worried about losing his job because he knew the organization would find another opportunity for him. To encourage others to accept lateral career moves, this organization posted video clips on their intranet of employees speaking about their experiences taking cross-functional positions. And perhaps its most important advice to others: Make sure the first lateral move made in the company is a success. If you have any hope of encouraging others to take lateral moves, they must see how it benefited others, or, at the very least, they shouldn’t associate lateral moves with career derailment.
  • Many organizations are reluctant to apply the “ready now” assessment. If organizations aren’t careful, “ready now” can be an impossible threshold to reach, like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. How many people can honestly say they were totally prepared for the job they are currently doing? Some learning can occur only once a person is in the position. So, to avoid a pointless debate about whether someone is “ready now,” don’t use it. Use the “one year or less” assessment instead. Also keep in mind that there may be a strong supporting cast who can compensate for the areas the successor may be weak in. The context surrounding a promotion can go a long way to determining how ready a successor needs to be.

Michael Timms, author of Succession Planning that Works, is a management consultant, author and speaker specializing in organization and leadership performance. He is also the founder and principal of Avail Leadership


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