Don’t Let Succession Planning Be Just a C-Suite Thing

“Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting to expect higher dividends and stressed that succession planning is a priority,” Bloomberg reported last month.

“Cook also made some of his most explicit comments on succession planning, saying that one of his most important roles as CEO is properly ‘passing the baton’ to a new leader. Every Apple board meeting in recent years has had succession planning on the agenda for all key executive roles, he said,” according to Bloomberg.

I admire Apple for a lot of reasons and this just adds to the pile.

Yes, succession is that important. Whenever I read about a leader that has stepped down or was let go, I am looking for the next statement to be “She will be replaced by…” But in a lot of cases you get, “We have actively begun the process of finding her replacement.”

Organizational risk

If your organization has, say 3 or 4 strategic goals, each one of those responsibilities could be managed by someone who is extremely important to the organization. These roles would properly be called strategic roles. But if you look on your succession chart and discover that for a few of those roles, you have no one ready or at a minimum of one year out, your organization is at a strategic risk.

This happens so often today.

I have always felt that succession planning should be embedded throughout every part of an organization. Every person hired should be hired having the capabilities to move into the space ahead of them. If you’re hiring for just an HR coordinator, that is a current state scenario. But what if you hired with the aim that this person has the skills to move into a generalist, recruiter or employee relations roll? Then you are building succession.

Hire for future state

Forward thinking organization should empower and educate managers to think succession with every hire. This model will allow you to build a “farm team.” This is a term used in sports, specifically baseball and is sometimes called a feeder team, practice squad; the idea is to provide experience and training for young players who, if successful, can move to the big league. I have always felt this sports model should be adapted within every organization because you are basically stocking talent and bringing them along to move into a new role.

The advantage is that if you have a superstar who ups and leaves, at least you have someone ready to step in, providing they have been groomed for the role.

This holistic view takes a long-term approach. If embedded within the culture, the results would be a more engaged workforce as everyone is being developed to prepare for new roles within the organization.

Grow from within

I gave a speech to one of my clients at an off-site. During the CHRO’s welcome speech he mentioned that the organization’s goal was to grow by 300% over the next few years. My initial thought upon hearing that was, “WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO FIND THE TALENT?” As he proceeded on, he mentioned that there were going to be huge development opportunities, career growth expansion, etc. to make all this happen.

Would they go on a hiring spree? Would they begin identifying talent within and start the process of developing their people? Lots of questions, no clear-cut answers, but for this growth to happen succession has to come into play.

Succession next steps

A culture of succession has to be created from the bottom up. Every hire being made should be filled with talent that has the basic skills – hard and soft – that can be developed for the future state of that role. Look within every department and create a culture of learning.

This culture must start with the senior leaders. While it is great to talk about strategic objectives regardless of their boldness, leaders must set an example, acting the role model about preparing. Be transparent about their need for development. One client of mine openly talked about having a coach and his ability to smooth over the rough spots. The ability for him to be comfortable and in a perpetual state of learning was paramount.

Develop your reports, discussing any learning gaps and what is needed. When assignments are completed, let the discussion center around outcome and learning. This is even more valuable when there could have been problems in its completion.

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Managers should be expected to coach and develop their people. At a minimum, everyone should know what they need to advance, and for those with particularly high potential, career tracks must be developed that give them a sense of where they can go inside the organization. If managers are lacking in coaching skills, train them.

What are major challenges within the organization? Identify them and create teams to tackle the problem and use them as opportunities for real world learning and development. Failure should be accepted and clarified. Turn the challenges into stretch assignments. Turn this army loose on the obstacles.

While the farm team concept may seem farfetched, It is a sure fire way to develop, engage and empower that most precious asset which you call your “greatest asset.”

So live up to those words and begin.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.