Quite often the idea of succession planning is not well received in organizations. On one hand, managers feel anxious to speak about “succession” and fear of the unknown begins to creep in. On the other hand, we simply don’t know who works for us. We know that our employees are very smart people (that’s why we hired them), but we don’t know enough about them to determine who should be next in line to fill key roles.
Unfortunately, taking a reactive approach to succession planning, and thinking that having a high-level understanding of the skills and knowledge required for the role will be enough to survive, is what has companies spending millions of dollars each year trying to fill jobs that could’ve been filled from within.
Maybe our whole approach to “succession” is wrong. After all, succession is a nice way to say “replacement” and no one likes feeling replaced. We all want to know that we are the best at what we do: the best cook, the best parent, the best handyman, the best joke-teller, the best employee. This means that no matter how we say it, succession planning will always sound as: “go find me the next best person to take your place”. Our inability to address these fears result in avoiding the topic all together, only dealing with succession planning when it’s already too late.
Stop saying the “S” word
There is a popular board game called “Taboo” similar to charades. The purpose of the game is for your team to guess the word that you have in front of you. To do this, you give your team “hints” through synonyms or definitions, without actually saying the word. Changing the mindsets or approach to succession planning is very much the same. We need to understand what we’re trying to achieve through succession planning and define this process in a way that it’s non-threatening, but rather accepted and embraced by the organization.
What we think we need vs. what we really want
Many of our succession planning programs focus heavily on defining the gaps. We then spend the rest of our time bringing the selected candidates up to speed for transitional readiness – This is what we think we need. Unfortunately, knowing how to tread water and falling in the middle of the ocean doesn’t guarantee that we will be able to swim long enough.
What we really need, is a complete cultural shift from a reactive succession approach, to a mentoring approach. Changing the focus from “filling the gaps” to developing our talent the moment they enter the organization. We unselfishly understand that this will not only benefit the organization for on-going transitions, but will also support our people’s career development.
On a recent report published by Stanford Business on Succession Planning, when corporate leaders were asked if their company assigned board mentors to senior executives below the CEO, 93% of respondents said “No” (2014 report on senior executive succession planning and talent development). This means that we’re preparing leaders, who may have the skills to manage, but are not necessarily the committed, motivated, engaged, enthusiastic or willing to share their knowledge with others– all which are benefits to a mentoring approach.
Out with the old, in with the new
Among dissatisfied employees, 64% say that their current employment experiences are having little impact on their development (2010 -Corporate Leadership Council). A mentoring culture doesn’t focus on a specific upcoming event (retirement, turnover), but makes mentoring a way of life in the organization which eventually becomes the “new normal”. The organization looks at talent management as an on-going learning experience for every person. Placing emphasis on knowledge sharing, constructive feedback, decision making and helping others succeed as part of the talent management cycle. Employees are constantly learning new skills, feeling motivated and having an opportunity to apply these skills on the go. By the time the organization has to consider potential employees to fill specific roles, there isn’t just one possible candidate, but rather many candidates who not only have the skills, but know how to put them into practice.
The model in action
1.Hire the right people: Hire candidates where a cultural fit exists. People who share the company’s values, practices, mission and goals.
2.Clarify expectations: Accountability can be established when people understand what is expected of them, and role responsibilities are clearly defined. It is also at this stage where mentoring begins.
3.Communicate Openly: On-going communication between the manager (mentor) and the employee (apprentice) strengthens the relationship, builds trust, identifies learning opportunities and helps clarify misunderstandings as these occur.
4.Manage through mentoring: Encourages knowledge sharing and skills development on a daily basis. Allows the employee to make valuable decisions based on lessons learned, while receiving necessary support from the manager.
5.Evaluate Mentorship: Performance evaluations provide an opportunity for the manager and the employee to learn. Shifting the approach from “this is what you need to fix” to “this is where I need to help you grow”.
6.Transitional readiness: Finding potential candidates to fill key positions becomes less challenging for the organization. The learning culture supported through mentoring allows many candidates to be ready at this stage.
Essentially every employee has a mentor (manager) and every person is somebody’s apprentice. Keeping in mind that even at the “transitional readiness” stage some things will always be learned on the spot.