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Opinion: Changing times for succession planning

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Executive meetingJohn Fay, of SFL, argues that succession planning is too often over-looked in UK organisations.



If we accept that people are genuinely our most important asset then we must accept as our responsibility that making sure there is a clear succession plan in place is vital to enable our companies to sustain performance and, with public companies, investor confidence.

The platform on which successful succession planning takes place is a measured leadership development programme. These programmes need to be built by the leadership of the business with the support of HR. Moreover, this programme needs to be aligned to the organisational values so crucial for achieving consistency in behaviours across a business. If these are not aligned, then it could be argued we are “shooting blind” as we cannot predict and/or control crucial behaviours which impact on our people and customers.

Strategic
Historically, leadership development has been classed as training but now its relevance to succession planning and therefore sustaining/transforming profitable businesses gives it far more strategic importance on the agenda of a board meeting. The leadership issues appear to revolve around how good the senior leaders are at converting perfectly credible visions and strategies into value added services. This can only happen through engaged and motivated staff and teams.

The old fashioned multi-layered organisations can, and have at times, without question restricted the emergence and willingness of capable individuals to grow into the next generation of leaders. Flat structures with leadership at all levels are seen as vital in order to maintain focus, flexibility and capability with our customers of the 21st century.

We are also aware of the need for better leadership as customers have greater buying power, the cost of poor quality gets higher and there is more competition and faster change in most market places. Structures are flatter, demands are greater and the global village has added an immense leadership challenge to traditional home-based businesses. China and India have further complicated the longer-term outlook with cheaper labour costs and economic growth that provides enormous opportunity for brave and adaptable businesses.

Asset
Whatever the organisation, there are many that publish the sentiment that “people are our greatest asset.” There is however little evidence that organisations do much more than pay lip service to the measured and joined up development of their people.

Americans now talk of “people centric” rather than “customer centric” businesses, where it is more important to recruit, develop and motivate internal staff, suppliers and third parties than it is to focus only on the customer. The reason being, if you don’t have the best people the customer will not get the best service. The theory is that good people will need far less prompting about the customer than those satisfied with the status quo. They will also do something about it.

Jim Collins’ extensive research in his best-seller “Good to Great” confirmed that on average 10 out of the short-listed 11 leaders of not just good, but great, companies had leaders who emerged from within the organisation they now lead. There is a message there for us all.

Planning
So why do we not spend more time measuring, developing and understanding our people in order to bring on the next generation of leaders? Perhaps it is poor planning, an attitude that it is purely a function of HR, a misunderstanding about the benefits, or simply general naivety about the huge financial returns available. It may even be that having spent years getting to be the leader, he or she believes that they should now lead followers rather than future leaders.

We would argue that great leaders leave legacies, leave sustainable organisations, Jack Welch’s immediate management team have all gone onto lead sustainable businesses. He made leadership a key strategic asset of GE; he coached them, developed and encouraged them. Voted the greatest business leader of all time perhaps we should look at the way he approached succession planning through leadership development.

If our organisations and businesses are to embrace “people are our greatest asset” the effective succession planning should:
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  • Become a board level debate and agenda item in all sizes of organisations.

  • Be the responsibility of CEO and line management with the support of HR not abdicated to HR.

  • All development must be clearly articulated and planned to make sure it is aligned to and supported by the business.

  • Leaders should be measured in order to become more self aware and then developed to iron out the risks and develop the opportunities.

  • The authenticity, capability and performance of leaders should be recorded and then mapped to the roles within the leadership environment they operate.

  • Leaders themselves should aim to create more leaders not more followers.

  • The development must be based upon a model that stands up to the academics and business leaders alike. Perhaps the leaders themselves may not need the detailed theory but we owe it to them to embrace a model that is proven, robust and applicable to business.
  • Authenticity
    It is in the selection of leaders that a scientific approach would provide the greatest opportunity. History says that those who have authenticity and behavioural strengths will develop and lead the great organisations. It is perhaps a sad reflection on the world today that appointments depend more on the presentational/how well connected than the behavioural traits of the candidates.

    It is clear that even great leaders and their people require constant and appropriate measurement, development, responsibility and appraisal, not merely the joy of creating a credible vision.

    If organisations across the spectrum are to flourish, succession planning must be strategic, must be joined up and must be based upon a measurable model that enables leadership capital to be properly audited. This way succession planning can fuel the constant challenge that will face all companies in the 21st century, that challenge being continually transforming our businesses. Change is now a constant, how right Mr Welch was.

    * SFL, of Stone Staffordshire is an expert leadership measurement and development organisation that works across the UK.

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