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Don't Plan Succession, Manage It

Don't Plan Succession, Manage It

Mark Vickers | i4cp

March 24, 2010

“Succession planning” is not just a flawed term, it’s based on a flawed business paradigm. In fact, thinking of succession in terms of just “planning” is among the top reasons most organizations perform poorly in this area.

Consider this: Improving Succession Plans: Harnessing the Power of Learning and Development, a major new study published by the American Society for Training and Development in partnership with i4cp (and free to members of both organizations), shows that a mere 14% of respondents describe their organizations’ succession planning efforts as effective to a high or very high extent. In other words, most think their company’s efforts are mediocre or worse.

So, why are so many study participants – there were 1,247 usable responses to the survey – so cynical about the effectiveness of their succession planning programs? The answer is simple: It’s because organizations are coming at the issue from the wrong direction. They too often assume succession is a planning process rather than a crucial dynamic management task that must be integrated with the rest of the talent management system.

Yes, succession management should have a planning component. After all, the study shows it’s a future-looking process in which the top two goals cited by respondents are to “identify and prepare” future leaders and to “assure business continuity.” But many companies focus only on the identification part of the process rather than on the preparation part.

That’s reflected in the metrics companies use or, rather, fail to use. When we asked what respondents’ organizations are measuring, we found two things: 1) there’s a striking and worrisome absence of solid metrics in regard to succession management, and 2) the metrics that are most commonly used are very basic indeed. Among those with succession planning programs, a meager 36% even track the positions filled by succession candidates to a high or very high extent and just 31% track the number of candidates in the pipeline to that same extent.

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Yet, organizations are even less likely to use true performance indicators such as senior management ratings, business outcomes, and performance appraisal scores. And they seldom hold managers accountable for succession planning, either.

That’s a bad sign, of course. In the famous words of management legend Peter Drucker, “What gets measured gets managed.” This lack of good metrics is, in fact, one of the reasons why Jay Jamrog, i4cp’s senior vice president of research, argues in favor of the term “succession management.” That term implies an overarching endeavor that embraces not only the act of planning but the full scope of processes related to succession implementation, supervision, evaluation, development and performance.

There’s no doubt that many business professionals think that development, in particular, should play a much stronger role in most of today’s succession programs. The ASTD/i4cp study found enormous gaps between the degree to which respondents say their organizations use certain developmental tactics and the degree to which they should use them. For example, just 30% say their organizations, to a high or very high extent, provide regular performance/development feedback to succession candidates, but a full 92% say their organizations should do so.


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