Succession Planning Is The Key To The Future

It’s time to start building a talent pipeline to handle the looming wave of retirements.

For many organizations, succession planning is like sending out Christmas cards on time, starting a diet or taking yoga classes: The goal is worthwhile, but it’s easier said than done.

But if there ever was a time to make succession planning a priority, it’s now. Why? The national workforce is undergoing a seismic shift in demographics that could leave companies that don’t plan properly bereft of quality employees and leaders, says Amy Hirsh Robinson, a principal at the Interchange Group (, a business-consultancy firm that specializes in workforce strategies for the new economy.

Here’s the deal, and it’s all about the numbers: Baby Boomers, some 80 million in all (born between 1946 and 1964), are reaching retirement age. Generation X (born roughly between 1965 and the early 1980s) is roughly half as big. And the millennials, or Gen Yers (roughly defined as anyone born between the early 1980s and early 2000s), some 75 to 80 million strong, bring up the rear.

True, the prolonged recession has delayed many Boomers’ plans for retirement. Nonetheless, an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s more than 12 million state and local government employees will be eligible for retirement through 2015, according to the Nationwide Retirement Education Institute. And because the Gen X population is so much smaller than the Boomers, looking to that cohort to fill the diminishing managerial ranks will be akin to cleaning a sewer line between manholes with just a 100-foot-long cable: You’re going to come up short.

“As Boomers retire or recalibrate their careers, there are not enough qualified and skilled employees from the next generation to pull from and replace them,” Hirsh Robinson explains. “Furthermore, many Gen Xers don’t want those responsibilities or the time commitment they require … they want more work-life balance. Which means we have to fast-track millennials into leadership roles.”

Another reason to make succession planning a priority: Many employees already don’t think their organization does a good job of succession planning, which doesn’t bode well for things like employee engagement and retention. According to The Pending Crisis in Succession Planning in the Public Sector, a report compiled by the Waters Consulting Group, 48 percent of respondents to a survey think their organization does a poor job of succession planning. Furthermore, only 41 percent of public-sector respondents with less than 10 years of experience believe their organization takes succession planning seriously, and employees ages 18 to 49 generally believe that their organization does not provide fair and equitable opportunities for advancement.

First priority: proper planning

To develop a succession plan from scratch first requires an overall assessment of your organization’s future business strategy. In other words, in what direction does your group need to go and how is it going to get there? Also keep in mind that the employee skills and roles that helped your organization get where it is today most likely won’t be the same ones that keep it thriving in the future.

“Then you need to assess your talent pool … ask critical questions about employee roles and competencies that will be required to drive your business strategies,” she notes. “That’s the appropriate lens through which you should look to assess talent. Most companies just do replacement planning for the roles that are currently in place, which is not a good use of time and planning resources.

“It’s more valuable to overlay business strategies onto talent needs,” she adds. “Sometimes you need to deconstruct an organization’s structure and see just what the critical roles will be moving forward. There’s a methodology behind it. And keep in mind that you’re not selecting successors – what you’re doing is building pools of talent to fill roles when opportunities arise.”

Too many organizations make succession planning hopelessly complicated, which frustrates executives and other participants, reduces the credibility of planning advocates and achieves less-than-desired results. “Execs just zone out when things are complicated,” she notes.

A common culprit that contributes to unnecessary complexity is a talent-assessment matrix tool called the Nine-Box grid. If her clients feel like they need such a tool to provide a framework or structure for assessing talent, Hirsh Robinson says she constructs a customized tool that provides more meaningful information.

As such, the best strategy for succession planning centers on simplicity. All you really need to do is pose critical questions to the people who make decisions about talent. “You need to consider what your future looks like and the roles and competencies that are critical to that future,” she notes. “Then you need to figure out who already has those competencies or who has the potential to acquire them, as well as how long that might take and the kind of skill development they will need.

“And if you find you don’t have the right people internally, what are you going to do about it?” she continues. “How do you recruit the right people? You don’t need an assessment tool as much as you need a series of questions and answers that people need to discuss.”

Picking participants

Hirsh Robinson says senior management should drive succession planning, and human resources should facilitate it. If senior execs don’t think their HR departments are up to the task, they should hire an outside facilitator.

How many people should participate in succession planning? It depends on how deep the succession planning goes. If the planning is aimed only at senior executives, then it probably makes the most sense to keep the scope of participation smaller because you’re only looking at the pool of people right below the senior execs.

“But if you determine that the scope should go beyond the executive level – and usually it should, because there are other roles that also are critical – then it should involve other people who think strategically,” she asserts. “But it can’t include everyone; you should involve only people who can think enterprise-wide, not just functionally. For example, anyone who likes to hoard talent should not be involved. If they can’t put on their enterprise-wide hat, then they’re not appropriate candidates.”

Once the talent assessment is finished, is it a good idea to let high-potential employees know that they’re being groomed for advancement? The answer can vary from situation to situation, but generally speaking, it’s better to err on the side of transparency, Hirsh Robinson says.

One good reason to be transparent: You may erroneously assume an employee wants a promotion to a particular job, when in fact he or she may not be even remotely interested. “That’s the biggest argument against keeping it secret,” she says. “Plus people want to navigate their own careers and smart people are looking for that level of transparency.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you promise them opportunities,” she cautions. “It simply means that you’re having a two-way career development conversation, and that requires asking if it’s something they want. If they’re interested in pursuing it, then you have a real dialogue around their strengths and weaknesses. Then the ball is in their court.”


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