Blog Post

Do You Know Her? A Lesson in Succession Planning

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

I always enjoy this time year, the beginning of a calendar, which is usually the beginning of a fiscal year for many companies, where they are finishing up their performance appraisals from last year as well as any strategic planning for the coming year. Part of the strategic plans is taking a more critical look at their succession plans. In the past, succession plans were reserved for senior management, and usually, they were more of ascension plans. In today's competitive talent world, all positions, specifically those that are critical to running the business must have succession planning efforts placed behind them. With this level of rigor required, many succession planning efforts are usually made by committee. Also, people considered for new positions often have a smaller body of work to show those making succession decisions. This scenario was not the case for senior leadership as most people occupying those positions usually had a much larger body of work for people to feel comfortable about their decisions. Without a large bodywork, many succession planners must rely on their experience and intuition. In today's modern, and yet litigious world, this is often a very uncomfortable place to reside.

Carly Speaks

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to listen to Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard and most recently a presidential candidate. Regardless what you think about Ms. Fiorina, she certainly does have a large body of work as well as a significant amount of experience. The topic of her discussion was on leadership required for our current society. She spoke about various ideas on modern leadership, but one area caught my attention, and that was of succession planning. Her premise was that modern leaders must have a good understanding of the talent that surrounds them as well as the ability to take notice of the potential. She spent a lot of time talking about how modern leaders must see the possibilities and not the constraints of a situation. She also made an interesting discernment between managers and leaders. She was first careful to say that managers are very much needed, as well as leaders. However, each fulfills a different role. Ms. Fiorina stated, "managers deliver results within the conditions and constraints given, while leaders change the conditions and constraints to deliver the results they need." Her statement is close to the quote that Peter Drucker stated, "managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing."

So, what does all this have to do with succession planning? All of this adds up to the preamble of a view on succession planning that Fiorina brought to the talk. Not only do leaders must have an appreciation for the possible but they also must facilitate familiarity. When dealing with lower level positions in an organization that requires succession planning, and usually by committee, the one hindrance for accomplished people to move forward is that they are not familiar to those that make succession decisions. Not only must a leader have an opinion about the potential within someone, but once they see that potential, they must be able to socialize that person to others. Remember, we're talking about people that do not have a large body of work to rely on, to be noticed.

So, what do we do?

So very often a lot of these famous leaders and executives talk about what someone should do. However, they rarely talk about how to do it. It was interesting that during the speech she addressed that particular issue and said that her practice, as an executive, was to talk about all the people that were in line for succession at the company. Regardless if it was next quarter or five years from now because she felt as if she needed to familiarize everyone with the people queued for upcoming positions. She said they would talk about the person's current position and their current results as well as skills and potential skills. They talked about both their hard (i.e. technical) and their soft skills (i.e. interpersonal communications). What I then thought about that when she said that this group would meet to talk about these things is that somebody in the group needed to know about the people that they were indeed advocating. This aspect of familiarity is what we often do not address. If we are considering someone for succession, we are placing our vote of confidence as well as our reputation that this person will do what you said they would deliver; that we trust them. Another challenge in the succession planning models of today.

Deutsch, Coleman, and Marcus (2006) state that the erosion of trust equates to missed expectations. It would be reasonable to suggest that to increase trust we must meet or exceed expectations. To test this assumption, we can utilize extreme such as telling a lie. Telling a lie is probably the most extreme way to miss an expectation. I think it's safe to say that if somebody tells us a lie we probably don't trust them. However, if someone says that they're going to do something and does it, it's fair to say that we have an opportunity to increase our trust for that individual. By connecting the previous discussion on betting our reputation on someone in the organization to advance, we must also be able to trust them.

Putting it all together

  • Be a leader – See what is possible and seek other’s potential. Don't work within the constraints and conditions but redefine those constraints and conditions to achieve optimal results.
  • Invest in others - Understand people's motivations, desires as well as professional aspirations. Build trust with others through meeting and exceeding their expectations.
  • Familiarize yourself with others – When you hear people talking about sponsoring others or advocating for someone else what that means is that they are allowing others, in the decision-making process, to familiarize themselves with you. If you are a leader, hold frequent and consistent meetings where the leadership team gets to know everyone else's protégé.

Looking at your succession efforts, how are you familiarizing yourself with potential successors? Let me know via Twitter @DrTomTonkin -- #FiorinaSuccession.

Photo: Creative Commons

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