Succession planning for the many, not the few

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Some years ago I visited my executive coach, a senior in the development team of a global pharmaceutical company. I was interested to learn how her company dealt with succession planning.

She described to me a sophisticated process where managers in the tier below the top were all carefully appraised. Then their assessments were put before a panel of executives who would debate who the highest potential people were. Those would be put forward for intensive development to become the company’s future leaders.

A similar process also took place for the next tier down. She went on to show me on her computer an array of interactive guidance, sophisticated pro-formas and scoring matrices.

I asked her if the approach worked. “No,” she said. “Because nobody at the top ever moves on so all those on the high potentials programme get cheesed off and move on to our competitors.” 

I have noticed that a lot of commentators are questioning the assumptions built into this linear style of succession planning and are advocating development for all individuals within the company. Certainly, I’ve always found the latter approach effective in organisations where I’ve worked, with the recipe for success as follows.

Organisations need to be sure that at entry or junior management level recruitment and selection methods are focused on getting in people of a high calibre, who can be grown within the organisation.

I’m with Adrian Furnham, who I’ve heard say that you need to look first and foremost for three qualities in any candidate: conscientiousness, emotional stability and the level of cognitive ability required to do the job well.

If you recruit people who have the attitude and capability to take responsibility for their own development, and the business provides a platform on which they can flourish, then you really don’t need to over-engineer the process of succession planning.

So what is the platform an organisation should provide to nurture self-selecting progression within a company? First and foremost, this has to involve the appointment and training of managers who understand that their single most important responsibility is to empower, coach and bring out the best in all the individuals who report to them.

Then there must be organisational structures in place that enable people to progress.  Rigorous delayering programmes may save on costs in the short term, but they are the kiss of death to healthy spans of control that enable effective line management and the upwards progression of people with potential. And depending on an unreliable external market to source managerial talent is very expensive, particularly in areas or where there are chronic skills shortages.

Helen Giles is executive director of HR at St Mungo's Broadway, and MD of social enterprise Real People