Succession Planning: Corporate Snakes and Ladders

There has been some serious buzz about a mighty little HR e-book called Humane, Resouced pulled together by David D’Souza. It is made up of the musings and thoughts of various bloggers about HR and HR-related topics.

And guess what? One of my blog posts is in it!

On purpose.

Despite this, I think that you should still read it. Right now. Go on, buy the damn thing – all the proceeds are being given to charity (and no, it’s not me). Honestly, it’s a great collection from bloggers all around the world proving that HR challenges are truly universal.

But in all fairness – the book was meant to be about collaborating and sharing our ideas. The intent was not to make money…so, you can actually get the book for free starting next week. And to tease you just a bit more…here is my contribution:

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Succession planning is the ultimate real-life version of Snakes and Ladders.

Let that sink in.

As anyone who has been a part of a succession planning exercise, whether it was as someone looking for a successor, as someone identified as a successor, or an unfortunate HR rep caught in the middle, can tell you – it’s all fun and games.

In principle and on paper the concept of succession planning is great: reviewing an organizations’ management team and critical positions, reviewing the existing staff, and drawing some dotted lines between potential matches. Establishing where we are now, where we want to be in the near future, and what is missing to get us there. What skills, knowledge, and abilities are missing…and how far off course are we. Can we take the risk of investing internally or do we need to go externally?

But in this game there are two sets of players: those who need to find successors and those who want to become successors, and if a childhood of playing board games has taught us anything, it’s that players are going to play…and not everyone can be a winner.

Most people will agree that succession planning, in some shape and form, is needed and worthwhile. Done properly it can improve your talent management, recruiting, and development programs. It doesn’t need to be complicated, convoluted or “corporate” (the three deadly “C”s).

But when the game starts and the dice are rolled, things can get murky.

You see people work hard to get where they are and while most dream of the day when they can say “See you later suckas – I’m outta here” , when it comes down to it, they are worried about leaving. Because for some, the idea of having someone take over what they are doing seems threatening.

Deep down, people don’t like to think that they are replaceable; they want to feel that they will be leaving a legacy. Identifying some up-and-coming “Hi-Po” (btw, I HATE that term) can feel like writing your own obituary.

So, they go through the motions of identifying a potential replacement, someone who will never be quite ready enough and keep them hanging in there just one more year…and ultimately send the successor sliding back down a few spaces.

There is also the fact that not everyone wants to be a Manager/ Director / Vice President. It’s true. While this might be difficult for some senior management to believe, not everyone follows the same career path – some people recognize their limitations and boundaries and are more than happy to do their work, get paid and go home. They just enjoy playing for the sake of playing, with no burning desire to kick-ass.

Remember the big Baby Boomer scare circa 2008? Seriously, this was right up there with Y2K, except instead of running out and stocking our basements with batteries and water and wondering whether our VCRs were ever going to work again, we started panicking about how our organizations were going to function when 25% of the workforce and workplace knowledge headed for Retirement-ville.

Except it didn’t play out like that and all those identified potential successors are now barely recognizable. Those that didn’t go M.I.A have resigned themselves to the fact that they are not going up the ladder any time soon.

Succession planning is a guideline and snapshot…not a guarantee. Anyone who thinks that by anointing someone as a “potential successor” they are going to ensure loyalty and continued success is delusional. And any successor that thinks that they are sitting pretty until Joe moves along may have a rude awakening.

When it comes to packing up the board and going home – who really owns succession planning? Well, it depends who you ask. Employees will tell you it’s Management calling the shots, Management will blame say it’s an HR initiative and HR…well, we say things like “HR will facilitate the process, but it ultimately belongs to (Senior) Management and Employees”.

At this point, the game starts to look more like Twister than Snakes and Ladders.

Succession planning is about holding a mirror up to your company to see what it looks like now and then making some serious decisions – do you have the people you need to get you where you want to be. If the answer is no… then you need to think about whether you are going to put in some strategically placed ladders or whether you going to wait and see if people land on a snake that takes them down.

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