It’s been said that one of the marks of a good leader is that they are not afraid to plan for their successor. But how realistic is succession planning in today’s job market? Step back a couple of decades to the era of ‘jobs for life’ and succession planning was fairly straightforward. Admittedly, it largely consisted of serving out your time until someone retired and everybody moved one up the chain; and admittedly women were deemed to reach their ceiling far lower down the chain of command than men were, but at least by the time someone reached the position of leadership they were well steeped in the culture of the organisation.

Fast forward to today and the way in which we view the job market is very different. Where once having more than two companies on your CV marked you down as ‘flighty’, now company-hopping is seen as a legitimate, and expected, way of building experience. But this new attitude to work is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Whilst individuals are building up a range of transferable skills and honing them in different working environments, organisations are faced with the task of having to replace and retrain new sets of employees as others move on.

On the other hand, organisations are responding to this more free-flowing marketplace by buying in the talent which they require, forcing employees to look elsewhere for promotion opportunities. So much so, that a Cornell University report in 2015 commented that: “Today few companies operate with a focus on finding and developing the candidates. By definition, outside hiring and executive search focus on the job and its requirements, including particular attributes of the organisation. Then process moves to searching for a candidate who might fit those requirements.” In other words, organisations are defining jobs and then looking for people who can meet their requirements rather than developing their people to deliver what is needed.

The pendulum swings

Now I’m not suggesting that we should move back to the old concept of one job for life; the richness which diversity of thinking and experiences can bring to an organisation is something which we should not lightly give up. However, in an era in which organisational culture and customer experience are increasingly seen as differentiators the question has to be asked as to whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way.  What does it say about employee engagement, when your employees are happy to jump ship at the first opportunity? More importantly, how much harder are you making the task of creating a strong and unified organisational culture when you are constantly replenishing the talent pool from outside?

We live in a world in which universal access to technology, raw materials and products has increasingly turned the emphasis from what we are selling to how we are delivering. Our culture, our ethics, our values have become the differentiators, the drivers of success and of customer engagement. This makes our people the most important and valuable asset which we have. As a consequence, succession planning has moved from being a way of simply planning for your successor and towards planning for the ongoing success of the organisation.

Do good leaders naturally plan for someone to succeed them? Well yes they do, but great leaders recognise that effective talent management at every level leads to even greater achievements for the entire organisation.

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