Traditionally, succession planning has been the process of identifying internal people to move into business-critical positions and leadership roles, often with a confidential, top-down, highly structured approach. Today, organisations are looking for simpler, faster and scientifically valid ways to identify successors; in essence, creating a more efficient talent “pipeline”.
Succession planning is often driven by senior executives seeking to reassure their boards (think classic “what if they get hit by a bus” scenarios) and entrusted to HR leaders to make it work. Creating a successful succession programme is not a simple task and HR leaders face numerous challenges. Organisational politics may influence who gets put on the fast track for promotion, creating disillusionment for those who are equally competent but less skilled at making themselves known. Long-term leaders may feel entitled to that next move up the ladder and be dismayed when external change agents are parachuted in to take the lead. Key talent may have been promised future opportunities that dissipate when business requirements shift or mentors leave.
Trying to ensure fairness and mindful of employee engagement, HR leaders have long sought to instil rigour in succession planning; giving rise to the popularity of nine-box grids and talent reviews. However, the time, money and effort put into assessing potential and reviewing performance often creates mixed results; for all the reasons we associate with the realities of a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).
Past performance is not predictive of future success if the role changes in scope, scale, or complexity and it may be time to add more rigour to the traditional nine-box framework. Adding inputs from reliable and valid personality-based and cognitive assessments, coupled with real-life performance data (multi-rater assessments , portfolio examples, performance reviews) can create more assurance. Technological innovations have also made it possible to assess skills in virtual environments, adding even more opportunities to identify the strengths and opportunities of future leaders.