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Succession sucks

If agility is the ability to adjust on the fly, how good can succession practices be with the ground constantly moving?


By Ian Hendry

This week I was speaking with one of our Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) members who had just been interviewed for a senior “transformational change” role in a large institution.

The candidate’s background, for all intents and purposes, suitably fit the job description. The technical boxes were all ticked off, at least sufficiently so that it had passed through the sophisticated screening technologies that were being employed. As one recruitment specialist reminded me recently, “we need some sort of automated screening process in place with hundreds of resumeé coming in for one job. We are simply too busy to review every resumé.”

Time is money. Anyway, our member had suitably prepared for the interview, based upon the job description, and was ready for the interview with the executive overseeing the change project. It very quickly became clear though that the questions being asked did not seem to match the requirements identified in the job description.

Frustratingly, all those well-prepared success stories that matched the job description were being wasted as the interview progressed. The executive was undoubtedly delving to gain insights from our candidate, and after some good, frank dialogue, our candidate felt comfortable enough to express his confusion with the apparent disconnect between the role in print and the direction of the conversation. The executive’s response was “we are learning more and more about what the role should be by conducting these interviews and we think it is morphing into something somewhat different.”

I think the executive’s honesty is noteworthy, but it speaks volumes about why succession management gets such a “bum rap.” I fully appreciate “agility” is the ability to adjust on the fly and address changing demands and needs, but if this is widespread, how good can succession management practices be with the ground constantly moving?

If you think my story is an exception, start to consider why 84 per cent of organizations participating in a recent Brandon Hall Group study reported having a lack of candidates in the pipeline ready to assume open and critical positions. There is little doubt, great talent that is both “agile” and “resilient,” and who can get results with her partners, is tough to find and grow. More alarmingly, just more than one-quarter of the participating organizations indicated that they have a ready-and-willing successor for 10 per cent or less, of open, critical roles.

Another seven per cent said they have no one groomed and ready. Worse yet, the report stated organizations were not confident that they had the right practices in place, nor knew what the best practices are, to identify and develop tomorrow’s most qualified leaders.

Anther study emanating from IED and Stanford University,finding somewhat similar results, made one of its primary recommendations the mapping of present and future operating and leadership skills required of each executive position. EY have documented that companies lack robust succession plans to identify the next generation of leaders. Clearly, this is easier said than done.

In the past couple of weeks, I have made reference to the upcoming challenges for the HR function itself, but the door is open for us to step up and be an integral facilitator in deciding how organizations need to be prepared and armed to address rapid change. So the opportunity is there, and as my SCNetwork colleague has found out personally, perhaps the specifications provided by executives in the recruitment process need to be challenged from the very outset.

How do you interpret these studies? Doesn’t it suggest HR is not equipped to step up?


Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.
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