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Apple post-Jobs: the importance of succession planning

It is never too early to starting planning for the future, because you just don't know when something unexpected will throw you off course. Take the news from Apple, for example. CEO Steve Jobs is currently on an unexpected period of absence due to ill health and will only be involved in major strategic decisions.

When a CEO who is so connected to the success of the company’s products and services goes absent for an undisclosed length of time, it raises the question of succession planning. What will happen should Jobs be unable to return for any reason? Luckily, for a large corporation such as Apple, this question will already be answered with a strategic and robust succession plan in place – albeit one it is reluctant to reveal, as widely reported in the news.

Unfortunately, not all organisations have the resource to plan ahead. In fact, a study by author Wendy Hirsch highlighted that 42% of UK businesses do not have a process for identifying future leaders, meaning they attempt to solve the problem during the crisis itself.

Identifying where the responsibility lies for succession planning in a business can add to this problem. It is not unlikely that the HR function will be overlooked in this process, because many CEOs take on the responsibility themselves. However, with their having such little time to seriously consider all options, the HR department can play a critical role in supporting and facilitating the process.

With a potential/sudden management change, a number of crucial discussions need to happen as early as possible in order to analysis the situation. HR is vital in this procedure and therefore should be included from the outset. Obtaining objective views from senior employees, ensuring all possibilities are covered and even presenting options to the decision-makers in the process are all roles an HR professional can assist with.

HR departments are also heavily involved in providing career advice and information to individuals, while assessing and advising on their development needs. Because of this, they have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, so tapping into this information can help to make an informed succession decision promptly.

However, ensuring the right person is ready for the role is no mean feat and the decision-makers must be confident that they have the skills and ability to pick up where their predecessor left off. The only way to do so is to plan as early as possible.

While it is hard to forecast what will happen in the next five, 10 or 15 years, it is still important to work through possible outcomes and ensure the right questions are answered. Things such as ‘what attributes and skills does our leader of the future possess?’ or ‘what do my people want and need?’ and ‘are there any ambitious "diamonds in the rough"?’ must be thought about and answered so you can establish a clear strategy and map out the ideal candidate for each role. There are now a number of tools available, such as the learnpurple talent toolbox system, which allow you to build questions such as these into your performance appraisals process – providing you with comprehensive succession reports at the click of a button.

It is also important not to underestimate the people within your organisation. The key to choosing the right person for the role is ensuring that they fit your organisation perfectly and possess the behaviours you require. So, don’t pass over those who live and breathe your culture and values, yet aren’t quite your leader of the future – after all, leadership is a learnt skill that can easily be developed within an individual.

Jane Sunley (pictured) is CEO of learnpurple