Beware the plan that’s led too much by HR

A good succession plan involves a co-operative effort from managers and HR

Succession planning at Toronto-based manufacturer ITEX Inc. is considered one of the HR department’s most important jobs — that and training and development, said vice-president of human resources Joanne Rivard.

That’s because the traditional role of HR — “writing policies, and hiring and firing,” said Rivard — no longer defines HR at ITEX. Its new role is to “truly plan strategically for the future,” she said. So, when it comes to succession planning, HR’s responsibility is to maintain a sense of urgency, to remind managers to ask themselves, “Who will replace me in three or five years?”

The question applies to managers at levels throughout the organization, because a manager replacing someone else will have to find a replacement for himself and so on.

Rivard describes the succession planning program at ITEX as a partnership: while HR designs the process and provides support in assessing competencies and identifying developmental tools, it’s the managers who have to put the plan in place.

In too many organizations, HR has no role at all, and succession planning is just something that happens as the vice-presidents jostle among themselves for the corner suite. In others, succession planning falters because it runs too much on HR impetus.

So what is the role of HR in ensuring that an organization has a number of people in line with enough skills and experience to take over the top jobs?

Toronto consultant Ezra Rosen said, ideally, succession planning is a responsibility of line management, with HR playing only an administrative and supporting role. He pointed to his experience at Alcan, where he worked many years ago. There, Rosen said, succession planning was so integrated in the business planning process that, in one division in particular, line managers would devote as much as a half day of their quarterly two-day meetings to go over the progress of their succession program.

“Because they were so serious about succession planning, a lot of the other things that HR promotes in terms of development were pulled along with it in its wake, so to speak,” said Rosen.

“Performance management, which was a struggle for most HR departments in terms of integrating it into businesses, was done naturally because it supported the succession planning process.” The same went for career planning and leadership development programs. Line managers saw the value of these programs because they were necessary for succession planning to work, Rosen said.

“All of those things were integrated. One drove the other. We in HR were scrambling to make sure these programs worked, because we were pushed by line management,” said Rosen. He contrasted this with organizations that see succession planning as solely an HR program.

Referring to one organization, where he worked on contract, Rosen said he was asked to draft up a succession planning program because the CEO was told by the HR committee at the board that he had to have one.

“The CEO felt this pressure and turned to me and said, ‘Give me a succession planning process.’ I designed a beautiful process to identify long-term candidates, mid-term candidates and short-term candidates for jobs up the ladder. I asked the senior people to identify the candidates. I basically drove it,” said Rosen.

“At the end of the day, everybody was happy to have it. They showed it to the HR committee at the board. But was there any commitment to this? My feeling was no. There were a couple of decisions made about moving and promoting people, but was there any reference made to the planning exercise we went through? No. There was no ownership. It was about senior management wanting to get the HR committee off their back,” said Rosen.

In today’s competitive market for talent, it would be rare to find a senior leader who doesn’t at least acknowledge the value of having a sound succession planning program, said Bill Hamilton, a principal at Toronto-based Western Management Consulting.

But what remains a difficulty for many organizations is finding the time to see such a program through, said Hamilton.

“So we have this issue of senior executives fundamentally believing they have to do it, but they struggle with finding the time. And this is where HR creates their own problems — by getting in the way of line managers doing their jobs,” said Hamilton.

HR gets in the way by creating programs that are too complex, too time-consuming and often too inclusive, Hamilton noted. “HR would design very elaborate competency models and put everybody being assessed through such models. And they’ll have a whole series of tiered meetings throughout the organization, which just takes everybody’s time. They put 300 people through the process instead of trying to quickly get to the 30 people that you want to focus on, which takes up everybody’s time.”

Apart from making things too complicated, one of HR’s common mistakes is failing to include the CEO early enough in the process, he added. Again, this is likely due to time pressures, but without the CEO, much time could go to waste in winnowing down a list of likely candidates whom the CEO will only dismiss with a comment such as, “Why do you have So-and-so on there? I don’t see that person as a replacement for me.”

HR’s role in development

In Hamilton’s view, too much time is spent on the identification aspect of succession planning and not enough on the development side. This is the part of the equation that poses a challenge for HR practitioners such as Helen Bozinovsky, vice-president of people resources at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.

“I think what organizations are struggling with is, ‘How do I develop my senior folks fast enough, given how quickly the world is changing, how dynamic the business is, how the competitive environment can change so rapidly, how technology changes the way we do business, how the various strategic alliances, mergers, acquisitions are changing the complexity of organizations?’” said Bozinovsky.

“The biggest challenge we have with succession planning is developing that skill set for the future. It’s about anticipating the needs but also figuring out, ‘How do I simulate the kinds of challenges of the future that will help an individual deepen skills in a particular area?’”

At Canadian Human Resource Planners, an HR professional development forum of which Rosen, Bozinovsky and Rivard are members, president Ian Hendry offered a daunting list of skills that leaders of tomorrow need to develop.

“Seeing the lights on the train early enough to manoeuvre the business direction and identifying and acting upon emerging trends are going to be key skills,” said Hendry. “On the softer side, managing such things as strategic alliances, ambiguity, cultural diversity, scarcer resources, astute skill deployment, at the same time looking for enhanced discretionary effort, has upped the ante for successful leaders. Evaluating potential leaders for these eventualities is the opportunity for HR and simply putting names in boxes is not good enough.”

That’s where the value of HR comes in: to create development opportunities and guide people to the appropriate resources out there. At Alcan, when line managers came to HR and said someone needed to broaden her skills in a particular area, it was HR that would have to find postings within the company or create leadership development programs to help round out that person with needed business exposure, said Rosen.

“HR would be the link between the business units to find those opportunities. Succession planning helped us set our agenda.”

And for all the effort, added Rivard, there’s always the likelihood that the individuals being groomed today aren’t the ones that assume the key role in three or five years’ time as planned; they may not grow as expected or they may up and leave for another employer. As a result, succession planning has to be a fluid process.

That’s why for Bozinovsky, the process includes staying connected to “individuals in senior roles in other organizations who we may meet in our travels. It’s about having contingency plans.”

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