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Six steps for succession planning success


The identification and development of future management candidates – otherwise known as succession planning or talent management – was recently identified as one of the top three immediate HR issues that needed to be dealt with (Bersin and Associates, 2011).

Over 50% of the employers surveyed struggled to fill key positions and believed that their organisations were being held back by skills shortages.
Yet research by XpertHR also showed succession planning to be a low priority for employers, with a only a third using an informal process, less than a quarter taking a more structured approach and two in five admitting to never having employed any process at all.
Given the current economic climate, however, it would seem vital that organisations are not only able to perform to their full potential now, but that they are also prepared for the future too.
And the benefits of succession planning are well-established – in fact, the Financial Services Authority has even made it a regulatory requirement in the financial sector.
On the one hand, it enables key positions to be filled more efficiently and cost-effectively and improves retention rates among key staff (along with their organisation-specific knowledge, experience, skills and values).
On the other, it also helps to motivate employees and provide them with performance incentives, while fostering a culture of internal promotion, development and career opportunity at the same time – all of which makes a big difference to employee engagement levels.
So why do so many organisations undertake succession planning so ineffectively? One of the key reasons is simply lack of HR expertise or an understanding of how to implement such an approach – employers simply don’t know what to do.
Succession planning is based on identifying and analysing training, learning and development requirements, which are then enhanced and built upon. And here’s a simple but effective six-step ‘how to’ guide to help put the theory into practice:
1. Analysis of the future
In order to be a meaningful, succession planning should be closely linked to the business plan. Therefore, the first step involves:
  • Looking at the organisation’s goals and strategies for the next few years
  • Identifying the job roles that will be critical to achieving those objectives and strategies
  • Establishing what kind of employees, particularly at the senior/managerial level, that the organisation will require to fill those roles.
2. Role analysis
Once key future job roles have been identified, the next stage is to pinpoint what core managerial competencies – that is, skills, knowledge and attributes – will be necessary to fill them. This can be done by using tools such as job descriptions, person specifications and competency frameworks.
3. People analysis        
In order to analyse individuals effectively, existing performance management processes can be employed, but they will need to be finely tuned in line with steps one and two above.
This means that performance reviews should be undertaken on the basis of both objectives and competencies in order to identify what people are achieving and how well they are performing.
Bear in mind, however, that it may be tricky to identify some areas of skills, knowledge or attributes if the employee concerned is not in a position to fully demonstrate them.
In these cases, it can be useful to assess them in more detail using tools such as psychometric and ability tests, group exercises, Occupational Personality Questionnaires and other assessment tools.
As well as exploring individuals’ potential though, it is also important to look at their career aspirations, preferences and constraints in order to ensure that external factors such as work-life balance are addressed.
There are a variety of tools that can help in this process such as the Work Interest Schedule, OPQ and Career Orientations Inventory.
4. Training, learning and development needs analysis
Employees’ individual training, learning and development needs can be identified using techniques taken from all of the above stages. But the key to success is to devise specific action or development plans for each staff member.
The aim here is to ensure that, rather than simply subjecting people to ad-hoc activities, they have access to a structured development programme that is geared towards them reaching certain capability levels.
To this end, it is helpful to ask questions such as ‘what do people need to be able to do/do differently/do better in order to deliver the organisation’s future vision?’
The key point here is to identify the ‘skills gap’ – the gap between where people are now and where they need to be in the future. The focus then moves on to how to fill that gap.
5. Learning and development activities
This stage is about providing employees with suitable training, learning and development opportunities. However, any opportunities should be ‘stretch’ assignments that are geared to the level being aimed for rather than the level that they are currently at.
This means that some of the opportunities required may not be a natural part of an individual’s current job role and will, therefore, need to be actively created. This could include, for example:
  • Providing additional responsibilities within the job role to help staff develop new skills and experience such as supervisory or people management expertise
  • Work-shadowing people in senior roles and in specific situations such as interviews, meetings and the like
  • Creating projects or secondments, which includes job rotations and special assignments, to provide the employee concerned with experience of working at a different or higher level
  • Involving individuals in cross-functional working parties, project groups, action learning sets etc
  • Coaching or mentoring under other staff members in order to develop knowledge in different areas of the business
  • Attending events such as conferences, meetings, industry sector events and the like
  • Undertaking specific and relevant internal or external courses.
However, it is essential that the people going through this process are actively involved in it and are communicated with effectively so that they are fully aware of what they are doing and why.
The advantage of this approach is that it enables them to take responsibility for their own progression and development and to have input into their own future career path.
6. Employee placement
Having done the groundwork, the ultimate aim is to get the right people with the right skills, knowledge and attributes into the right jobs at the right time. Therefore, an effective selection process is still necessary to ensure equality of opportunity both for people within and outside of the acceleration pool.
But the end result of taking the time to do this is that people will be promoted into high-level positions based on merit rather than length of service or current job role.
Finally, a few notes on making succession planning as effective and successful as possible. Having a process that lacks transparency and fails to provide equality of opportunity can be divisive and counter-productive.
It is also important not to depend too heavily on internal promotion activity or the organisation could run the risk of stagnating due to a lack of new blood to bring in new ideas, practices and experience. Therefore, there should always be a suitable balance between home-grown talent and external hires (around 3:2 is usually about right).
Also be flexible – avoid the ‘eggs in one basket’ situation of engaging in person-specific and job-specific succession planning in order to broaden out the potential opportunities for those involved as much as possible.  
Admittedly, not all employees are desperate to scramble up the career ladder – many prefer to ‘bloom where they’re planted’. But it doesn’t mean that they should be excluded from the process, which likewise should not be focused solely on senior roles.
Good succession planning should also enable individuals to make cross-boundary career moves because, let’s not forget, movement within organisations can be horizontal as well as vertical.
Like any form of planning, the succession type isn’t all about predicting the future or even being prepared for it. Instead it is about creating a future that the organisation wants and needs.
So to that end, start putting a suitable process in place today rather than leave the future of your business to the fickle finger of fate.

Tara Daynes is founder of  HR, training and employment law consultancy, Tara Daynes HR.
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Tara Daynes


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