Succession Planning - one for the HR nerds!

Whenever I hear these words I think drudgery. I think of processes that don't work and I think of lots of work with no outcome for the organisation or employees. I think of spread sheets and 9 box matrices. I think of changing career! And next week I'm leading a session on succession planning at our global HR meeting. The word karma comes to mind.

Last October I went to this great HR conference and lets face it, there aren't many of those. Usually the content is boring and often the other attendees are just there to whinge about how they aren't respected and how they don't have enough budget.

This one is a bit different. I have been two years running now and there are usually some great thought provoking speakers. Last October Professor David Clutterbuck spoke on "To find, refine and bind tomorrow's multinational talent today". That's fancy speak for succession planning and talent management. It was a great presentation. He really challenged all the senior HR people in the room and you could physically see people squirm. He started with a question:

"If talent management and succession planning work, how do the wrong people so often get to the top? And how come the diversity at the bottom of the organisation isn't reflected higher up?"


I have worked for one organisation that had a well established system and process for talent review and succession planning. And when I say well established I mean that the organisational went through the painful and lengthy process of identifying talent and successors for key roles and then nothing happened. It's like we, HR, did the work by giving the organisation the process and the fancy boxes but then didn't give the Leaders the tools and knowledge to have the right conversations with employees about their career. The bit that matters! The bit that makes the difference!

The other thing that bothered me about the process is that I'm not sure that the people that were identified in the "talent boxes" were the actual talent and the people that were in the "they are OK" boxes weren't. At the time I was put in the middle of the 9 boxes by my manager. Moderate performance and moderate potential. Fine. I asked my manager "What do I need to do to be considered a high performer?" He couldn't tell me. Ummm..."What does high potential look like?" Again, nothing.

I was headhunted to another company and have gone on to do bigger and better things. Is this what happens when leaders don't know how to have the right conversations? I think so. Others in my team were identified as "talent" so an expectation was created. Nothing happened to develop them and they also left the organisation. Others I worked with stayed long after I left and two colleagues asked to have career discussions with me, as they had stayed but felt their career was going nowhere, when mine seemed to be going somewhere. Professor Clutterbuck talked about the problems of narrowly defining talent and presented a simple way to describe it:
  • People who continue to significantly invest in their own development. This is the premise of this blog! You have to look after your own development. You can't wait for others to do this for you. Organisations will be willing to invest in you if you also invest in yourself.
  • A track record of assisting the development of others - Yes! Coaching and mentoring others is not just great for your soul but it supports your own career development and improves organisational life.
  • Ambition to achieve greater responsibilities (well, derr), and
  • High motivation and the ability to learn

  • I think this sums it up for me.

    We are failing as HR practitioners if the practice of succession planning as a process only continues. We have delivered process and tools and competencies and definitions but failed in helping people with conversations that matter. We have created complexity and linear models that don't help deliver the right people at the right time in a complex and constantly changing world.

    I don't have all the answers but I'm going to acknowledge that this stuff is hard. The charts and tables that HR people like me create don't address the complexity of today's organisations. So what next? A different model and a different way of looking at talent and working out how to support the organisation to have the right people at the right time.