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Succession Planning with Mandy Chooi, Founder & Principle of Fairlead

From an outside-in perspective, what do clients lack/overlook/forget when developing a succession planning programme?

  • Be realistic about why you want a succession planning program. If it continues to be true that only 15% of your named successors actually get put in the job they were succession planned for – then you have to get honest about what is really going on. Is the plan really there to ensure zero wait time between vacancy and fill in every big job, or is it there to check some administrative HR box… If it is the former then put in an auto-replace in the HR system (automatically and officially give the job to the person who is named as successor). All you have to do is execute it once, and watch the entire leadership team go into shock! Then they will realize what the succession plan is REALLY there to do.
  • BUT this does not mean that I think the above is the right answer. I am not convinced that the immediate replacement of every vacancy is the answer. 
  • Check the systemic biases that may be baked into the organization decisions about people. People of a certain “type” may be thought of as unsuitable for a role simply because that role has always been configured and performed one way. If we can redesign the role and unbundle the tasks the type and numbers of people who can fill it changes dramatically.
  • It’s never about moving one person. It’s always a domino effect. HR is familiar with having to backfill roles after one person is moved. The challenge I pose is that instead of backfilling as a reaction to one move, plan to do an orchestrated series of moves at once. This way you get to
    • Substantially change the way entire segments of the company (culture) is led
    • Position people together with complementary strengths and gaps
    • Redesign jobs and teams
    • Overcome concerns of one candidate not being “perfect” enough

What are 3 key factors companies should keep in mind when building a succession planning programme?

  • A succession plan is only useful if it is tightly interwoven with the business strategy and the plans to achieve that strategy, including the financial and resource allocation realities. And the business strategy is only useful if it can be executed by the supply of the right talent. Which means the CEO, CHRO and CFO need to work closely together to design and execute the future health of the organization.
  • A succession plan is actually about developing waves of bench strength. You identify people and capabilities you need for each wave (referring to broad levels and capabilities of the organization as waves) so that you can be mindful and thorough about ensuring those people have the experiences they need to develop and succeed at the next higher/greater wave.
    • It is not about filling a position
    • And it is not about making it exclusive to a small group
  • The best leaders and teams need wide ranges of abilities, expertise, perspectives and experiences. A succession wave needs to build diversification and range into the development
  • Succession may not be the right word anymore. A reasonable analogy might be version upgrades. It is a planned upgrade in capability requiring a set of development and moves to ensure the necessary continuity and capability growth throughout the organization. So the talent succession plan needs to mirror that truthfully. It needs to help people gather a portfolio of experiences in order to make them diversified and wide-ranging enough to meet the requirements for the next wave.
  • Individual must be actively engaged to shape their own career progression, incorporating what they most want to learn and experiment with.
  • There can/should be many scenarios that your succession plan can address. Versions of the plan can experiment with different ways for the role to be performed, or for the problem to be solved. For example:
    • Plan A – configuring the role(s) to enable bottom-up innovation and collaboration
    • Plan B – configuring to emphasize single point decision making, supporting by content experts 
    • Plan C – configuring to make the most of a leader who is a great connector
  • Include talents outside of their organization into your plan
  • Partner with other organizations to exchange talents 
  • Succession plan non-employee roles as well (coaches, partners, consultants, contractors, etc.) so that the partnership and services the organization needs are also not interrupted

What practices can help scale succession planning in an organization?

  • Flatten the organization. Reduce levels and salary bands. This removes the concerns of whether compensation or titles need to be changed when am employee is moved.
  • Be able to flex and change the way jobs and tasks are designed to enable various ways to combine them. Unbundling tasks lets you create jobs more flexibly by grouping tasks together to suit the context.
  • Get good at people and network analytics. 
  • Be super transparent about the plan. People need to know why this plan exists and how it helps them grow, improve and make career progress.
  • Engage, enable and trust business leaders to own the future health of their organizations, which necessarily includes working their succession plans.

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