Making Succession Planning LESS Scary – 3 Reflections from my Key Note

Making Succession Planning LESS Scary – 3 Reflections from my Key Note

Last week, I led a key note workshop on succession planning with 100+ community leaders from one of the premier counties in our state – Kent County. In the 90 minutes, we spent about 45 minutes learning and 45 minutes practicing the core skills needed to do it well.

What are the core skills?
Asking questions, listening, and creating a safe place for people to answer with the truth.

To practice, they were asked to do two conversations: one using the Team Member Fact Sheet, and one asking the 5 questions at the top of the Individual Development Plan (strengths, weakness, successes, short-term goals, long-term goals). For the latter conversation, I actually did a live, unrehearsed demonstration with a volunteer so they could see how I did things like create safety, gather information, and make it a simple conversation. It was powerful for me because it was so real.

Here are 3 reflections from learning with these leaders:

  1. Too often, succession planning = retirement. In a pre-conference survey, I asked what one word comes to mind when they hear ‘succession planning’. The top 3 answers were retirement, future, and replacement. One of the solutions I push is to stop referring to ‘succession planning’ and start calling your work a ‘strategic talent review’ – which is the focus of my solution.
  2. The fear barrier around the legality of the conversation can be overcome. At the end of the keynote workshop, the general counsel for the group told me, “You nailed your addressing of the legal issues and how to address it effectively.” It was high praise, because I preach a talent/people-centered approach to leadership and I believe in treating people with equality and truth. That endorsement was huge for me.
  3. ‘Listen, observe, do’ can be done with 100+ people! The fact that I went first, so people could see me doing it, helped the learning immensely. This was clear from the questions and observations people made about how to make things safe, how to ask follow-up questions, and what to say to invite openness and feelings of safety.

My bottom-line message was to approach the topic as a talent(i.e., people)-focused conversation and then use that information to understand plans for key roles and key people in your group.

My passion statement (from my own Entrepreneurial Operating System® VTO™) is maximizing individual growth and eliminating needless pain – moving to and past the tipping point of success. As I reflected on the day and how energized I was by my time with these leaders, it was clear what the reason was: I could see the hunger for learning in the group and feel the relief in hearing an approach many could see themselves leading effectively. I could also see several leaders moving toward that tipping point.

If you would like to learn more, here are links to the presentation and some of the free templates I shared:

  1. Presentation (on slideshare)
  2. Development Plan (used top 5 questions)
  3. Key Person / Key Role Worksheet
  4. And here are my top 4 blog posts addressing succession planning:

8 Questions To Ask Before Starting Succession Planning

Succession planning is a great conversation.

For the organization, it puts plans in place to be used in case of a sudden departure of a key person.  It also identifies talent gaps that can be discussed and dealt with before they become emergencies.

For your best people, it creates a vision of the future for them and identifies ways to challenge/develop them over the coming years.

Then there is you, the executive.  Maybe not such a great process.  You are putting plans in place for after you are gone.  You are sharing the talent you have worked hard to hire and develop with the rest of the organization by allowing them to be considered for key roles in other areas.  Do we avoid these conversations?  The numbers would say yes.  First number – only 35% of the CEO’s in the United States have succession plans.  Second number – personally only 45% of us have wills.

Talent management is about great conversations.  Here are eight questions to ask a leader before starting a succession planning effort:

  1. I am excited about this process.
  2. I think this is an important process to do each year.
  3. I have talked to all my direct reports about what they want to do in the future.
  4. I have done this before and I feel comfortable/skilled at the process.
  5. I will make the time (10-20 hrs) to do this work over the next 2 months.
  6. I am willing to accept input from other peers on my succession list . . . and I will use it.
  7. I am willing to allow key players from my team to be on succession plans for other groups.
  8. I feel good about setting up my groups/the organization to be successful after I move on.

 

Here is a link to this form with a number scale attached.

By naming our reasons for being reluctant, we can at least talk about them.  By letting those reason stay hidden there is very real potential to erode trust on the team and leave great talent(people!) unchallenged and unclear about what opportunities exist for them in the future.

I would opt for the great talent management/succession planning conversation started by these 8 questions.

Succession Planning: Why We Don’t / 3 Reasons We Should

“I can do succession planning, but I am not going anywhere.”  These words were spoken to me by a senior leader 4 years ago.  A year after he said these words his job changed and he switched divisions.  More recently he left the organization for another role.  He was good with numbers, but not great at predicting the future.  Then again, who really is?

I added succession planning to the Talent Scorecard because it is a critical area to address in a talent management strategy within an organization.  However, it is not as important as performance conversations / one on ones / development plans.  Here is a link to trU Tips #11 where I introduced the scorecard and the online version I created for people to evaluate their own situation.

Single biggest barrier to succession planning: Our discomfort with the question “What is the plan after I am gone?”.  Talking about our mortality is uncomfortable and avoided.   Want proof?  How about the number only 45% of Americans have a will – which is the succession plan for an individual.  As it turns out, corporate succession plans must be more uncomfortable because only 35% of organization have a succession plan for their CEO.

Succession planning is not about us (ie: Our ego, power, wealth) – it is about others.  So here are three reasons to do it:

  1. It is part of being a leader: The ability to face a difficult situations and help a team work through it is a critical part of leadership.  Succession planning is about leadership.
  2. It says “You are more important than me” – the ultimate trust building action: Does this need more explanation?  Look at Jim Collins level 5 leader description in Good to Great.  There are lots of benefits for people feeling and SEEING this – email me if you want a list.
  3. It builds the same courage in others: What CEO would argue that it is not important to have plans for the most critical people and most critical roles in their organization?  The CEO going first removes one BIG excuse from the list other leaders will have not wanting to do it.

Much of talent management and the activities/processes that go with it fall under the description of simple, but not easy.

A parenting expert once gave me a line in response to a child telling me something is too hard.  The response.  Yes, it is hard.  But we can do hard. I think that same line fits with succession planning.  If we want people around us that do not shrink away from hard, then we need to be willing to go first.

What are some barriers you have experienced or compelling reasons you have used that you would add to this list?

They asked: Hi Po selection, Hiring the right people, Succession Planning

For my blog readers – this is a second post inspired by questions received from HR leaders that I talked with yesterday.  It was great to see a packed lunch meeting with 100 busy HR leaders taking time to talk and go through my Talent Scorecard.  Great questions, and I was happy to get my development plan template in the hands of so many HR leaders who can hopefully use it to impact their people.  

I will start back with more normal posts next week – 150 to 300 words.  Also, I apologize for any spelling /grammar issues.  I work hard to scrub a normal post, but at 1000 words the editing to perfection is not a battle I will fight.  Remember that trUe conversations are not always done in perfect english. 🙂

How do you effectively identify high potential employees based on data rather than who the manager likes?

I am guessing this comes from a negative experience trying to convince a group of leaders that they were wrong. 🙂  First of all, HR has to argue enough with business leaders about things like compensation that do not make this conversation an argument, but make it a collaboration.  Here are a few tips to make it happen.

  • Start the process with this question:  What do we look for in a successful leader here? (Hi Pots by definition are people destined for a significant leadership role – 2 moves up in a larger organization).  Take the list and prioritize it to a top 5 critieria.
  • Insert into the conversation the definition of learning agility from the book The Leadership Machine (by Lominger).  Use that description to help the group make sure the pieces of that definition are captured in your criteria.  (I am assuming you are using a 9 box of some sort somewhere in your process)
  • Make sure there is a section called Accomplishments as part of the Talent Profile you are creating for each candidate.
  • Have the discussion and air disagreements and capture(write it down) any concerns or questions people have about this person.
  • Action Plans / Next Steps should include having leaders questioning the inclusion find an opportunity to work more closely with this person and for the leader supporting them to find ways to showcase this person’s skills in projects, presentations, etc.

I have a post talking about how developing people is like cooking in a crockpot.  Here is the link.  Do not try and microwave this process and feel like ALL the answers have to be clear at the end of the process. 

Other than personal referrals, what have you found to be the most effective way(s) of determining those who will end up being high quality employees?

This is a big one, and there are endless vendors out there ready to sell you their silver bullet solution to this problem.  My favorite solution is outlined in TopGrading, but know that it is not an easy implementation.  It will be a live long skill(that will be marketable and useful) once you master it.  I have worked/networked with lots of startup/early growth companies and here are a few tips based on what they say made a difference and a few hints from me.

  • Divide interviewing into Skills/Experience to do the job and cultural fit for your organization.  Spend some time defining your culture (values, beliefs, mission) and be purposeful about evaluating people based on that.
  • Find ways to work with people first – via contracts, projects, including a ride along with someone as part of an interview, or maybe even giving them a real problem to solve during an interview.  Too many people think interviewing starts with the posting on monster or has to be confined to questions in a room. 
  • Do a 30 day, 90 day, and 6 month review of hires to determine “Good Choice?  Bad Choice? What did we learn?  How do we apply the learning?”  Over time this will make your process better.
  • In hiring decisions center the discussion around answering three questions:  Are the willing?  Are they able?  Are the manageable?
  • Give it time.  If you only have 30 minutes to interview a hire you will likely get a 30 minute hire.  If that is good enough for the leader then move on to a manager/leader who cares.  (sorry that was a bit blunt, but there is no other way to say it.)

If we are not able to have a formal succession planning system can you please provide some other ways and/or tools that we can informally work through this with leaders we support within our organization?  Thank you!

I left the Thank you in your question because I wondered if it would still be there after I gave my answer.  🙂  My answer is No, not yet.  I say this because Succession Planning is such a big topic and really the culmination of doing the basics of Talent Management well that if it is too hard, the reasons are you are not doing the basics well and the relationships within the leadership team are probably not trusting enough to make it work anyway.  The number one barrier to this happening well at the leadership level is ego.

I do have a couple of bits of advice that hit me as I talked with the 100+ HR leaders yesterday.  Stop calling it succession planning and use the terms Most Valuable People and Most Critical Roles to identify your efforts.  I did that in my Talent Scorecard because I wanted to communicate it in more ‘non HR’ language.  Leaders might balk at the ‘valuable’ or ‘critical’ labels because they will exclude people.  This process is meant to focus scarce resources (time, money) on the most critical areas(roles) and most valuable resources(best people) in the business.  I guess the question is whether the leader proposes spending a little bit on everyone?  Another thought is “Do we want our talent management efforts to resemble socialism or capitalism?  On second thought, better hold that one back unless you want a real ideological argument.  🙂  I commit to trU Tips #18 to focus on that, so sign-up for trU Tips  and I commit to addressing this for you and others that are asking the same questions. 

In the meantime, the basics I reference are already out there on my resource page.  Check it out.

If you want clarification on any of this feel free to post a question on this blog and I will gladly do my best to answer it.