Passing the Baton: What’s So Hard About Succession Planning?

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“One of the things I did best was provide a successor. Adam has the respect of the owners and the players, he has expertise in the very important areas of social media, international and television, all of which report to him.”

That was a statement this week from the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, David Stern, in announcing his retirement. Stern steps down on Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking charge of the league, and he will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.

“I decided that things are in great shape and there’s an organization in place that will ultimately be led by Adam that is totally prepared to take it to the next level,” Stern said.

As the saying goes, “That’s what I am talking about.” I could almost see Stern’s checklist:

  • Identify new skill set needed for the future;
  • Hire for replacement;
  • Groom/Mentor with other needed skills;
  • Make the appropriate introductions as needed;
  • Work side-by-side as a true partner;
  • Announce retirement;
  • Pass the baton.

What’s so hard about succession planning?

Sports teams do this all the time, although some teams are more successful than others. They hire for positions each and every year, planning ahead for that baton passing.

Now I ask you, what is so hard about that? Imagine for a minute that in every organization, every new hire was looked at as a potential replacement. You would build a garden rich in talent. You would be dubbed a talent factory, and all of this because every hire was looked at through the filter of succession.

In track, I love to watch the 4 x 400 relay in which four individuals run a race and the passing of the baton is a key part of it. Each participant runs a certain leg of the race and, if successful, skillfully makes the baton transfer with ease.

Every organization should have a track around their departments, with every position carrying a baton. Whenever a hiring manger gets approval to bring on more staff, one of the questions that should be asked is, “What is the next step for this role?” “What skills will be needed for that role?” In other words,” What will we need?”

It is critical that organizations define the skill sets, expertise, and character required for all roles by taking into consideration today’s business needs. This is particularly relevant in the current market, which is truly testing every facet of the organization today. The preferred candidate of six months ago may no longer be preferred today given the dramatically different business environment.

Building for your future talent needs

Never hire just to have a warm body in a role. That was the technique used during the industrial revolution on the factory floor. They just needed a cog in the wheel. No other consideration was taken into account. Plug someone in and let them do their job. No thinking needed.

If your organization is to move forward in this age of innovation, that technique has failure written all over it. However, if every new hire was put in place based on the level of talent needed in the future, you are headed in the right direction.

Passing the torch is a lesson all businesses should pay attention to. However, for the majority of companies that do focus on succession, the focus seems to be largely directed toward on the executive suite.

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A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that while many companies think they have an effective program in place to identify the leaders of tomorrow, in reality, they’re only focusing on a handful of high-potential executives considered next in line for the big corner office.

The C-suite is important, but there are other key roles throughout an organization. While strategy is set at the top, the strategic roles, whether they be in marketing, finance, IT or HR, are ones to execute these plans. Within their respective departments, there are also key strategic role that will carry their portion forward. So in actuality, just about everyone plays a key role in moving the organization forward.

The lack of a succession strategy is as common in global companies as it is in smaller businesses. I had a friend whose father was a successful dealer. His three siblings had no interest whatsoever in taking the baton after working summers in the family business. Eventually, his father sold the business.

Planning for your key organizational roles

Structural engineering deals with the analysis and design of structures that support or resist loads. The dynamics of an organization have changed drastically over these past few years; they have been truly transformative, but the stress externally and internally has caused structural damage throughout.

All this leads back to the talent within. We’re reaching a point where the only competitive difference in organizations will be the talent within. If you have identified strategic roles within your company, you can no longer sit idly by and not plan for the future of those roles.

What would happen if your key people were to walk out on Friday and not return on Monday? There are key roles within your organization that require the baton to be passed.

Whether you are a senior manager looking to support your top performers, or, a middle manager looking for the next step up, keep an eye on what’s going on in the company beyond your immediate job responsibilities and work towards planning successfully for the future.

Get the batons in your organization ready right now. T he race has already begun.

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.