Succession in an era of turnover

Start by letting high performers know they're in line

For a while there, companies had resigned themselves to high turnover rates and given up on succession planning. What was the point in grooming people for top positions when they probably weren’t going to stick around anyway?

But there are signs businesses are once again reconsidering succession planning, says Susan Bourne, a team leader of organizational effectiveness with Watson Wyatt. It can and should be an integral part of any corporate long-term strategy, she says, adding an important caveat — if it is managed properly.

There’s no question that a highly mobile workforce is still a big issue, but companies can solve that problem by being much more open with employees. If someone is pegged for a senior position, let her know about it, says Bourne. It’s still very common for a high-potential employee to be in line for a top position but leave because nobody ever told her.

A culture of communication is crucial to effective succession planning. However, when companies look at ways to cut costs one of the first things to get cut are communication practices. They shouldn’t do that if they want their succession planning to be effective, says Bourne.

Of course the flip side of that open communications coin is dealing with the consequences. For instance, a person identified for promotion will expect development opportunities that the company will have to deliver.

Companies will also have to be aware of how people will feel if they are not being treated as executives of the future.

“If you have those people who feel left out, there has to be sub-succession plan created to hold onto those skills,” she says.

Succession planning should be done in tiers. The first is for those people the company will not be able to do without in the future. But there is a second tier of talent that can also be extremely important to the company. “They should be told they are critical and they are important,” says Bourne. And they have to be given other development opportunities to encourage them to stay.

One of the most persistent challenges to good succession planning is the age-old problem of executives wanting to hire somebody in their image, says Bourne.

“The problem with that is business is changing so rapidly and they aren’t linking succession planning to long-term strategy,” she says. “What has to be there for the future, not right now.”

And once the process of developing leaders is begun it must be reviewed every year to make sure the right people are still on track, the right skills are being developed and it all still jives with the long-range outlook.

It can become a time-consuming process if it becomes an HR program, says Bourne. HR has been so anxious to become strategic partners that they have taken many of the responsibilities away from the rightful owners. “The whole process of people management (including succession planning) belongs in the hands of the line,” says Bourne.

HR should facilitate the process, to ensure the right people are being identified and developed. And HR should help executives think through the competency requirements for the longer term.

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