Executive Succession Planning

If you want to build a sky scraper, don’t start by buying a hammer.

The head of HR for a small regional bank called wanting to know the names of the evaluation tools I use to assess leadership.

“Why would you like to know?”

She explained that her firm’s leadership development process needed updating, and the senior leaders needed a reliable way to identify leaders who would be promoted to top executive positions in the future.

“Once you have a record of those traits,” I asked, “then what?”

“Nothing right now, “she said. “We’re just beginning. We haven’t thought much about the succession process or program itself.”

“Well, then,” I told her, “answering your question is difficult. As far as leadership assessment tools go, there are a lot out there. I couldn’t give you sound advice on which to use without talking to your executive team and board first. I’d have to see how they think about future leaders in terms of their corporate strategy. How the leaders and the business’s overarching strategy tie together means everything.”

She told me the executive team “wasn’t ready” to deal with that. They weren’t looking for anything expansive. They weren’t ready for a succession program. They wanted a tool only.

I wondered to myself when they would be ready. When a senior executive team member unexpectedly decides to leave, because he needs more time with his family? When the President develops cancer? When the CEO is fired suddenly for misconduct?

Our conversation made think of the phrase, “If you want to build a sky scraper, don’t start by buying a hammer.”

Numerous articles in Forbes, Harvard Business Review and other magazines stress the importance of having a robust succession plan. Yet how to do this in the best possible way is often given short shrift.

A board will look to the HR department to find candidate assessment tools. The search begins with the search for low cost tools. Then “carpenters” who use these tools may be brought in to start work.

But what will they work on? What are they trying to build? Why are they trying to build it?

Thousands of dollars are spent to produce voluminous reports and plans that don’t reflect the business’s most important needs. Leadership development programs and the succession process fails to deliver value, not because the tools are bad, but because those tools aren’t part of an overall strategy. It’s like trying to build a skyscraper with carpenters and no architect.

Businesses need a blueprint and a reliable foundation for developing and retaining talent. The design must be done with the future of the organization in mind. The “commercial developer” of the corporate strategy must conceptualize what the skyscraper needs to look like to take the business into the future.

A CEO and Board of Directors would never delegate the development of key strategic initiatives to “carpenters.” Curiously, though, when it comes to succession planning and the people decisions, they tend to accept a hands-off approach. What is more important than the future leadership?

Truly outstanding companies have succession planning and leadership development programs that are comprehensive and integrated into the corporate strategy. The CEO and boards of these companies are directly involved in determining what capacities, roles, and talent will be needed to execute the strategy. Absent clear objectives and agreement among the board, any method is arbitrary.

In these organizations, the C-suite recognizes that for the business to thrive, development must occur throughout the organization, creating a pipeline to meet future needs. There is an ongoing assessment of the executive team’s bench strength, so that they are ready for both planned as well as the sudden unanticipated departure of key executives. Talented people are identified, given recognition and opportunities to develop. Metrics are in place to measure program performance and business impact.

The task may seem enormous. That’s because it is. Human Resources might suggest options, diligently do research about the best tools, the best practitioners, and costs. They likely have good insight into the organization and its culture. Yet, they are in it and are operating within the restraints and practical realities of organizational life. They must have a role in the process, but cannot be the owners of it.

The board of directors and the executive team, led by the CEO must be the owners of the succession plan if it is to be part of a strategy that will ensure that the organization thrives in the future. An outside architect can provide the expertise necessary to design a system that will meet those corporate needs. The architect can provide a perspective and the leverage that is virtually impossible to have internally as well as technical knowledge of best practices. In the end, it is the collaborative effort between the executives and the architect that ensures success.

Organizations positioned for the future have senior leaders who:

  • Govern their executive development programs and succession, actively, and at the highest levels-CEO and board.
  • Intensely focus on leadership development as a key strategic initiative.
  • Define what the business needs in its senior leadership now and in the future
  • Invest in succession planning as the critical business lever it is
  • Recognize that comprehensive and continuous succession planning is a powerful aspect of the company’s brand.

To build a leadership development skyscraper, CEOs and boards in highly successful businesses enlist architectural expertise to create the blueprint that reflects their vision.

They don’t shop for tools.

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