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How to strengthen succession planning

A roundtable event covered a breadth of areas to consider when succession planning

Succession planning continues to be a hot topic and rarely do leaders claim to have perfected this. Over the past few months we've engaged with senior stakeholders across executive resourcing, talent, HR and a broad range of business functions – both via interviews and also a roundtable discussion – to discuss what is working and where the challenges lie. Among the attendees at our roundtable were representatives from ITV, Virgin Media, Barclays, BNY Mellon, AON and SAP.

The insights gained were plentiful, but the key takeaways were:

The board/business leaders must drive this agenda

Roundtable attendees and interviewees agreed unanimously that succession planning needs to be part of an organisation’s DNA; it needs to be integral to the way a company thinks and behaves rather than seen as a directive. For this to happen the message needs to start at the top and be part of every talent conversation. As Richard Liddington, director of talent acquisition EMEA and LATAM at LinkedIn, put it: “The buck stops with the business leaders. They own it, and HR facilitates the actions.”

It’s the conversation that's important, not the tools

Use the tools that work for your business. This might be the latest technology or it might be an Excel spreadsheet – it’s the conversation that comes from this that really matters. If you get bogged down in the process it’s a pointless exercise. Ceri Connolly, people director, group services at Lloyds Banking Group, told us: “Sometimes succession planning can lose its focus and become more about getting greens in the board metrics”.

Think of the future, not just the present

The best approach to developing high potentials sparked much debate among our attendees. The movement of talent between functions is both an effective retention technique and inevitably gives individuals broader experience, increasing their suitability for future leadership roles, they agreed. Huawei provides five-year plans for its 150 executives. These include a strict rotation model, with high-potential employees frequently moved from one role or country to another.

But too many moves can be hazardous. One source explained that 75% of MDs were moved within his organisation in the same year, which clearly caused disruption to the wider business.

Role-bound rather than time-bound ‘readiness’ was discussed as a more realistic measurement of suitability for leadership appointments. For example, instead of being listed as ready for a move in a certain number of years candidates are described as being ready in one, two or three roles.

Addressing diversity balance through succession planning

This was the biggest discussion point at our roundtable. Most if not all participants reported having targets in place to support diversity initiatives, yet few recounted any real advantage. If shortlists need to contain 30% women for example, is this good or bad for the business? Are we witnessing any change in the approach to talent, or seeing longer shortlists?

Attendees discussed the merits of external proactive talent mapping to pipeline for roles or areas where diversity needs to be addressed. Providing the business is engaged in the process and committed to having proactive meetings with candidates, this can be a highly-effective approach. If the engagement isn’t there, and the momentum is lost, it can be more damaging than doing nothing at all.

Key takeaways

Although there is no silver bullet there are certainly measures that can help strengthen succession planning.

It’s the conversation not the tools that will deliver an effective succession-planning strategy, so make it part of the DNA of your organisation. It’s not a conversation to be had behind closed doors. Be transparent, make the career paths within your organisation clear, and encourage your employees to take accountability for their own progression. Keep a proactive eye on the external market for hard-to-hire roles or those requiring a diversity lens.

Susie Turpin is a director at Wilbury Stratton

Further reading

Managing change at the top

Idea in practice: The key to success(ion) planning

Succession planning at Baxters Food Group

Ensuring the future of your business