Succession planning is an important part of managing people in an organisation. Resignations, deaths in service and retirements, especially at senior levels, can leave awkward gaps which take time to fill.
Critical skills are lost, and important institutional knowledge disappears. This can put an unprepared organisation in a difficult position. Even if a top candidate can be found soon, it takes time to build organisational knowledge and industry expertise and understanding.
Good succession planning ensures that at least one excellent candidate is waiting in the wings for a critical position. It allows organisations to save recruitment costs because they are not under pressure to urgently fill a vacancy for a senior or critical position. An organisation with sound succession planning processes need never be caught on the back foot.
Succession planning helps the organisation identify and develop future leaders and provide them with critical skills. While it is accepted that no one is indispensable, replacing a leader or specialist who has accumulated highly specialised knowledge or competencies is costly and time-consuming. Succession planning mitigates the effects of a sudden or unanticipated vacancy in a principal position.
Although some candidates may not have the required skills, succession planning also often includes training and mentoring for potential candidates. Time invested in succession planning can also have an impact on creating and maintaining diversity in senior roles.
Succession planning differs from career pathing in that it equips incumbents with a wide range of skills to prepare them for several potential roles, in contrast to fast-tracking, which moves them through a linear path of successive jobs.
Some organisations undertake succession planning so that they have a rich pool of skills to draw from. Other organisations may embrace succession planning because the founder wishes to retire, and wants to groom a group of excellent successors. Either way, succession planning makes very good sense.
The business case for succession planning includes the following:
- Adapting to demographic changes and talent scarcity.
- Identifying skills gaps and training needs.
- Retaining institutional knowledge in a knowledge economy.
- Boosting morale and retention by investing in employees.
- Replacing unique or highly specialised competencies.
STEP 1. Identify critical positions
The first step is to identify key positions, which, should they become vacant, would make it very difficult to achieve current and future business goals. These critical positions are not just in the senior ranks. A rolling mill master operator is critical in a steel smelter. A formulation chemist is critical for a coatings company.
A critical role may be characterised by a unique skill or by deep, uncommon knowledge.
The outcome of this step is a list of critical roles, with an explanation of the criticality of each position.
STEP 2. Identify capabilities for critical positions
The next step is to determine the capabilities required for the critical positions identified in Step 1. This is best done for each critical position in workshop format and with the incumbent taking part in the conversation.
In the workshop, identify the relevant knowledge, skills, abilities, and competencies needed to achieve business goals. Map the career and learning paths that may lead to such a position. Will candidates need specific professional qualifications? Do they need to build experience within a particular environment? What timelines are involved
STEP 3. Identify and assess employees meeting the criteria
The next step is to look within the organisation and determine who is interested in and has the potential to grow to fill these critical positions. Determine the skills and experience gap of each potential candidate for a particularly critical position. Do this in such a way as to avoid the ’crown prince’ syndrome. Ideally, more than one candidate should be identified for a specific critical role.
The next action is to discuss the possibilities with the selected candidates. This should be phrased as career development and not as a firm offer. The purpose here is to sound out the candidate’s appetite for the position and whether they wish to undertake the necessary studies and work to be in a position to be considered, should the position become vacant. Care must be taken to ensure that the candidate does not walk away with the impression that they were ‘promised’ the job. Records of the conversation should be kept.
STEP 4. Develop and implement skills and knowledge transfer plans
Under the guidance of HR specialists, the next activity involves creating the strategies for learning, training, development, and a systematic programme for the transfer of skills and knowledge to the identified beneficiaries. The incumbents in the critical roles should play an important mentoring role in this process.
These strategies should then be implemented with regular reviews and programme adjustments as required. Some forward-thinking organisations implement retention actions to ensure that the candidates do not leave the organisation.
Here are some thoughts:
- Define the learning, training, and development experiences that your organisation requires for leadership positions and other key areas and positions.
- Link employees’ learning plans to the knowledge, skills and abilities required for current and future roles.
- Discuss with incumbents how they can pass on their corporate knowledge.
STEP 5. Evaluate effectiveness
The succession planning process should be evaluated regularly to ensure that identified candidates continue to grow and develop and that their loyalty to the organisation is being positively maintained. The mentoring and support role of the incumbents should also be recognised and rewarded.
All organisations can benefit from identifying and passing on crucial job skills, knowledge, social relationships and organisational practices. This will help prepare the next generation of workers, thereby ensuring the seamless movement of talent within the organisation.
Succession planning can be of great value to smaller organisations that have fewer resources available for knowledge management programmes and the formal, structured development of employees.
Job design, on-the-job training, internal development opportunities and an adaptive organisational structure are important practices to promote the achievement of organisational objectives while creating an environment that promotes employee engagement and retention. The organisation’s needs and the employees’ interests converge in succession planning because of its wide scope and open process. Think about your successor. Who in the organisation is in a position to take over your role? You might not be offered that next promotion, because there is no one to replace you. Who do you see stepping into your shoes one day? And what can you do, starting now, to help that person prepare for the transition? The time to institute succession planning in your organisation is now.
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