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Is the concept of ‘bench strength’ damaging to highly talented employees?

Ensuring top performers aren’t kept on the sidelines for too long

By Brian Kreissl

The concept of “bench strength” is frequently used when discussing succession planning. This particular analogy from the world of sports refers to the fact that in any team — whether in sports, business or elsewhere — it is important to have strong team players waiting on the bench, ready to step into the game should the need arise. Like an elite sports team, organizations should have high performers ready to replace top players if they are no longer “in the game” for whatever reason.

Businesses need to acquire, develop and assess individuals to ensure the organization possesses sufficient depth in terms of talent in various stages of readiness to move into more senior or challenging roles. In other words, organizations must ensure they have sufficient bench strength with respect to their senior leadership team and other talented individuals waiting in the wings to step up should the need arise.

Leaders can and do move on for any number of reasons, and new leadership positions can be created due to an organization’s growth, new products or lines of business, expansion into new markets or as a response to external opportunities and threats (such as those related to legal and regulatory developments, competitive pressures and technological changes).

If an organization is serious about enhancing bench strength among its senior management team, it is particularly important to be able to effectively grow talent from within, and to be able to deploy that talent effectively and in a way that makes the best use of individual skills, knowledge, abilities and interests.

Identifying critical positions and talented individuals

However, before working on enhancing its bench strength, an organization needs to determine which positions are most critical. This involves assessing which positions would cause the most problems or be particularly challenging and difficult to fill should the current incumbent decide to leave the company.

It then becomes important to determine which individuals within the organization have the necessary skills, abilities and aptitudes necessary to fill those gaps. But even if an individual is designated as being “high potential,” it is important to create individual development plans for such an employee, since even the most talented individual will often require at least some type of development in order to become fully capable and confident in moving to the next level.

Criticisms of the concept of bench strength

While bench strength is a very popular concept in relation to succession planning, there are some valid criticisms of the tendency to view succession planning through such a paradigm. For example, Erik Berggren argues in a 2008 blog post that to some extent the perceived need to build bench strength is a myth.

Quoting Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and his book Talent on Demand, Berggren points out that it is actually damaging to the morale of top performers to tell them they are highly talented and then have them essentially sit on the sidelines waiting for a suitable opportunity to arise. In other words, if someone is viewed as highly talented, it is particularly important to keep that person engaged by utilizing her skills in the short-term — as opposed to waiting until a suitable senior management position becomes available at some point possibly several years into the future.

Even if a suitable senior level position is not available immediately or within the next few months, highly talented individuals need to develop and grow, and be assured that their skills and abilities will be leveraged to their full potential within the relatively near future. As well as formal classroom learning, it is also important to provide meaningful growth opportunities for succession candidates through promotions as well as lateral transfers, secondments, temporary assignments, coaching, mentoring and job shadowing.

Cappelli uses the analogy of supply chain management and maintaining a “talent inventory.” He points out that sitting on an inventory of talent is even worse than carrying a large inventory of products simply because talent can walk right out the door. For that reason, it is helpful for organizations to engage in proper “supply chain management” with respect to talent — ensuring the organization’s talent inventory isn’t allowed to grow stale.

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Carswell's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions. He is also the co-author (with Yaseen Hemeda) of the forthcoming book entitled HR Manager's Guide to Succession Planning, published by Carswell and Canadian HR Reporter. This blog post is a short excerpt from that book.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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