Managing talent replaces static charts in a new era of succession planning

In the new knowledge economy where talent is the critical resource, many companies have demonstrated a renewed interest in succession planning. It is seen not only as a means of backfilling critical roles but as a way of ensuring enough focus on the career development of key high-potential individuals. However, many organizations are finding that traditional planning approaches are time-consuming, cumbersome and ineffective in a world of continual organizational change. This is what is driving a change from traditional succession planning to a holistic talent management approach.

There are a number of things wrong with traditional succession planning. Common to most traditional succession plans is the creation of replacement plans: detailed charts showing slates of candidates available to backfill key executive positions. While replacement planning is useful in identifying gaps or areas of vulnerability in internal succession, too much emphasis is placed on the skills and positions needed currently in the organization.

But the skills and positions needed to succeed today are not necessarily those required in the future. Replacement planning also limits an organization’s ability to take a longer-term view of career planning and development. In addition, traditional replacement charts are often static and constructed with little knowledge of how available or interested potential candidates may be in the proposed career path.

Another shortcoming is that plans are frequently developed using a narrow point of view; often a single source of assessment which may be subject to strong individual opinions. Typically, potential candidates are identified via a single managerial assessment, which is forwarded up the organization.

This method is often ineffective as some managers may try to “block” candidates by underrating them for fear of losing a talented performer. It is also difficult for a manager to assess a direct report’s ability to succeed at an organizational level higher than their own — they lack the perspective necessary to assess the candidate’s potential relative to the required competencies. In addition, organizations are faced with the problem of insularity when assessing candidates. The candidate’s potential is assessed relative to internal points of comparison. Usually any competency standards developed are done without reference to external benchmarks.

The “report in a drawer” phenomenon is another obstacle to the effectiveness of traditional succession planning. Frequently, the process yields a list of high-potential individuals, but it fails to trigger any action such as reassignment, internal transfer, or formal training.

Rather than being a catalyst for developmental action, the succession report languishes idle in a drawer. In some cases this may be due to an absence of action plans or the creation of vague plans which lack any means of followup or monitoring. In other cases, managers may be reluctant to let high performers go, viewing them as a departmental resource rather than as a corporate one.

Despite the importance of developmental assignments, some organizations may be reluctant to arrange stretch assignments. With fewer managerial levels and broader spans of control, such assignments may involve a higher degree of risk should the candidate not perform as expected or required.

Finally, successful succession planning is often impeded by ineffective communication practices since managers, who are often in the best position to support the employee’s development, are often left out of the loop. Additionally, traditional organizations seldom seek the input of the candidate regarding his career aspirations and interests. This may prove a careless oversight in today’s age of “managing your own career,” when individuals envision working for multiple organizations, are involved in dual-career marriages and have complex family responsibilities.

Best practices: A talent management approach

Successful organizations are progressing towards a more flexible action-oriented process. We are seeing the following shifts:

•from once a year annual planning sessions to continual talent management;

•from a private process shrouded in mystery to an open process based on business needs;

•from individual development to group or team development;

•from a competency focus to emergent capabilities mapped to the business structure;

•from a compliant paper-driven process to one that is commitment-driven and interactive; and

•from a retroactive focus on what the employee has done, to one focused on what the employee is capable of doing.

In the “War for Talent” study conducted jointly by Sibson & Company and McKinsey & Company, research confirmed higher-performing companies have better talent. The study found that meeting career expectations is key in retaining high-potential individuals.

The research also identified seven key practices that define the winners in the talent war:

A talent mindset: Leaders of winning companies believe talent matters; it must be developed and upgraded. Their messages and actions match their beliefs and they are personally involved in growing the talent pool at the senior management level as well as three or four levels below.

Distinctive employee value proposition: Organizations that are talent winners have established and continue to refine a distinctive employee value proposition. They have developed a compelling answer to the question, “Why would a talented person want to work here?” They have tailored their “brand” and “products” (the jobs available to potential candidates) to appeal to the specific people they want to find and keep. Such organizations are also willing to pay what it takes to attract and retain strong performers.

A gold standard of talent: Talent winners have an incredibly high standard that is clearly defined, known and reinforced throughout the organization. They insist on “A” players and know one when they see one. They have developed detailed profiles of the kind of people they are after by analyzing the background and experience of their current high performers.

Revealing information about talent: Successful organizations have better data for managing talent, like other business assets, including profiles of the people, population, corporate dynamics and the talent market. They track and manage data to help answer strategic talent questions. It is no longer enough to track voluntary and involuntary turnover; they are able to create profiles of the individuals they are losing as well as retaining.

Talent review forums: Talent winners use senior management forums to make assessments and decisions for upgrading talent, including stretch assignments, promotions, pay, recruiting and selective attrition. Assessments are often done using multiple points of view and sometimes use external talent benchmarks to combat insularity. These reviews must be candid, probing and action-oriented, and link talent to strategy. They must set high standards, ensure performance is assessed fairly and act as a vehicle for fostering personal development.

Superior sourcing and selection: Successful organizations are always on the hunt for new talent rather than recruiting only to fill specific vacancies. They recruit opportunistically against predictive needs from non-traditional sources, and their internal job market enables them to deploy talent. They look not only to their competitors but also to suppliers and customers to source new talent.

Learning through work: Talent winners structure work to improve learning and results. This is accomplished through stretch assignments, action learning, coaching and knowledge management. Winning organizations proactively create developmental assignments and plan the movement of high performers in advance.

Successful organizations are turning to a more flexible, holistic talent management approach to ensure they are winners in the “War for Talent.” Leaders in these organizations know that talent is the key to success. They infuse the organization with behaviours that support the talent mindset and hold all line managers accountable for ensuring the organization has the talent it needs now and for the future.

Nancy Gore is a consultant with Sibson & Company. She can be reached at (416) 542-2400 or by e-mail at [email protected]

Latest stories