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Dead men’s/women’s shoes

Good succession theory needs to translate into positive action from the highest level if it is going to reap rewards. Toby Burton, executive search specialist in HR at Eton Bridge Partners, regularly recruits HR leaders and says good succession theory needs to translate into positive action from the highest level if it is going to reap rewards.

Poor succession planning at the top of an organisation can have devastating consequences, not only in terms of poor business performance but also lack of leadership, vision and inspiration. Often the path of least resistance is to hire the “next in line”, someone who knows the organisation well and is often the most technically capable. But is that really the right decision? Leadership roles are exactly that; having the ability to take people with you, the strategic capability to lead the business forward and to be the right individual to cope with the rollercoaster which is today’s economy. When choosing a successor, there is no substitute for proper preparation, and engaging the board of directors in the strategy from day one is absolutely key. Is the business poised for growth, is it looking at rationalisation, does it want to expand into new sectors, new geographic markets? Where is the business headed in the next three-five years and how does the internal capability match what the business needs going forward? Note the reference to going forward, good succession planning is not about where the business is today or has been previously. The classic nine box grid approach, or high potential programme, is often the starting point for an HR Director looking to advise the board on succession options.

While this route has its place, it misses a trick, not least because it focuses on the talent an organisation already has, as opposed to beginning the process by building a picture of the profile the business needs to match market conditions. The real starting point should be using the board as key stakeholders. Lock them in a room if necessary and challenge them to be the creators of the right competencies. Engaging them in this manner is the first step to making a hire which puts the business at the heart of the decision. With facilitation from the HR Director, the output should be a combination of both competency and experiential requirements for the ideal succession, and it can then be reviewed on an ongoing basis as an evolving blueprint. Do any of your internal potentials meet this board endorsed blueprint for succession? This is the time to start the assessment process, an increasingly complex task. There is a much debated suite of tools available to judge potential, however whether large or niche vendor is chosen, consistency in approach is key.

Use the opportunity to have a detailed look at the talent available, not just close to home but globally too. Trust the high potential programmes, even though individuals may be out of kilter seniority wise, and harness technology to ensure consistency when it comes to tracking and identifying those leaders of tomorrow. Think carefully too about the mix of the future team. Successful succession planning must also recognise diversity, most corporate organisations ideally need to ensure an inclusive leadership team in order to best compete on a global platform. The strongest executive teams harness opinion from all angles. Encourage a balance, a difference of thinking. Next, the business must hold a mirror up to itself and ask some tough questions. As a business are we ready? What happens if disaster strikes tomorrow? Do we have an individual who can succeed immediately? How long will it take us to groom our ideal successor? How do we groom? Who will groom? What experiences do they need between now and then to ensure they are ready? Do we need to recruit externally or is our Talent pipelining strategy robust and fit for purpose?

These are all key components of a thorough succession planning process and, if followed, will help ensure future success. However, it doesn’t stop with the newcomer’s arrival. Many organisations will raise a glass in triumph when the chosen one is in place, announced and presumed capable of making the necessary impact, but it is critical that the on-boarding strategy is well thought through and not allowed to drift. No candidate is perfect; there are few who would not benefit from buy-in, coaching and guidance from the senior team. The HR Director has a clear role in driving this forward and seeing the talent strategy through to fruition at all levels of the organisation. HR Directors must play a critical role in ensuring board engagement; the board will have the most accurate view of business pressures and direction in the medium term. These views must be collectively harnessed to ensure a fit for purpose CEO profile is developed and then the HR Director must trust robust talent, assessment and on-boarding practices to deliver smooth transition to future leadership.

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