In most organizations, you’ll find more people who understand how to hit the ball than people who can decide which game to enter, more people with well-honed skills for producing results in the short run than visionary strategists. Certainly, you need both to succeed, but most organizations are replete with those who can plug ahead and lacking in those who can plan ahead. The compe¬tition, however, is more likely to outmaneuver you strategi¬cally than to outperform you tactically. Your tactical “to-do list” (plugging away) will often keep you in the game today, but only a clear people strategy to attract, retain, and develop MVPs can ensure your success tomorrow.
We have always understood this concept when it relates to sports. People start to notice the gifted Little League player long before he tries out for the majors, even though only about one percent of boys who play baseball in childhood ever make it to a major league tryout, and even fewer of those boys earn the Most Valuable Player designation. But hope springs eternal in the minds and hearts of aspiring players and their parents, so no one leaves the development of the hopeful to chance—at least not in baseball.
For example, for years St. Louis served as home to one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Stan “The Man” Musial. In twenty-two major-league seasons, all of them in St. Louis, Musial led the Cardinals to three world championships, won seven batting titles, and earned the National Leagues’ Most Valuable Player designation three times.
Throughout the world of baseball, fans knew him for his unorthodox corkscrew-style batting stance. St. Louisians knew him as the premier ambassador of the game—St. Louis’s own favorite son. He lacked the flamboyance of some of his contemporaries, let alone the baseball greats of today. But he offered much more—a role model for leaders who want to leave a legacy.
He wasn’t flashy, big, particularly fast, or conventional in his batting. But he didn’t have to raise the bar; he set it. He showed us that legacy-making takes talent and the ability to consistently deliver exceptional performance. Stanisław Franciszek Musiał wasn’t born to greatness; he developed it while playing for Donora High School, Donora Zincs, Williamson Red Birds, Daytona Beach Islanders, the Columbus Red Birds, the Springfield Cardinals, and ultimately the St. Louis Cardinals. At each step along the way, coaches worked with Musial to perfect his hitting, pitching, and fielding—all essential talents for someone who would eventually lead his team to three World Series championships.
We understand how baseball greats develop, but we seem to lack the ability to apply these lessons to business. With the revolving doors at the top of many companies spinning faster than ever, organizations still overlook opportunities to develop talent from the bottom up, and they continue to allow the selection of top leadership to turn into messy melodramas.
Instead of leaving the future of your firm to fate, consider a comprehensive course of action that takes the guesswork out of determining the future—a process that provides objective, indispensable data to help make succession decisions and avoid costly mistakes as the Baby Boomers leave the workplace and the next generation enters.
In the past, leaders used the terms replacement planning and succession planning synonymously, but the two differ. Convincing decision-makers to have a disaster replacement plan in the event that key individuals die or depart unexpectedly is not too difficult; persuading them to prepare people for advancement years ahead of their actual promotions presents more challenges. Therefore, replacement planning is a start, but only a start.
Succession planning is a deliberate, systematic effort to guarantee leadership continuity, a process for ensuring a suitable supply of candidates for current and future key jobs so that the careers of individuals can be managed to optimize both the organization’s needs and the individual’s aspirations. Done well, succession planning maintains a balance between implementing business strategy and the achievement of organizational goals while keeping the disruptions associated with personnel changes to a minimum.
In contrast to an automatic promotion system within the chain of command, succession planning prepares people for present and future work responsibilities so that high-potential individuals prepare for promotion at all levels. A powerful way to maximize human capital both now and in the future, it creates an ongoing, continuous plan to focus attention on talent. It establishes a way to meet the organization’s needs for talent over a long period of time, starting with the sometimes daunting plan to advance someone to the number one position, the Chief Executive Officer.
Do you know if your current processes sufficiently address your succession planning issues? Ask yourself the following: Do managers complain that no one is ready when vacancies open up? Are expenses for external searches increasing? Will you compromise your strategy because you don’t have the talent to support it? Are possible successors for key positions leaving because they perceive no room for advancement?
A “yes” answer to any one of these questions implies that your company has not adequately established or communicated its plans for the future of its people, both for replacing people in key roles and for developing high potentials for advancement. Whatever your current situation, these steps describe how you can start a strategic succession plan:
- Clarify expectations. What does the current CEO expect from each level of the organization?
- Review the current succession plan for the organization. Determine whether your leadership pipeline supports your mission, vision, and values. Analyze the one, three, and five year strategies, and evaluate these strategic objectives vis-à-vis the current pool of talent.
- Forecast future talent needs. Examine current versus required performance, existing enhancement initiatives, projected turnover, anticipated retirements, talent growth projection, demographics, and changing business trends.
- Establish competencies for each key position.
- Identify excellence markers and critical success factors for each position on the leadership team.
- Set standards for high-potentials. The criteria for determining a high-potential would include the following: The ability to advance two job levels in five years, a willingness to relocate or acquire requisite field experience, the potential for at least 10-15 years with the organization.
- Identify the strengths and weaknesses for each individual you are considering for key positions. Assess “ready now” people, identify a timeline for “ready now” in the future, and examine each high-potential vis-à-vis this list.
- Ask each member of the leadership team to identify high-potentials currently in the organization and one or two possible successors for each key position.
- Assign members of the leadership team accountability for development plans for each high-potential.
Defining leadership competencies is the voice; evaluation for readiness, the echo. The two must exist in tandem, neither alone guaranteeing success, but together making it more likely. To evaluate your bench’s leadership competencies, begin by collecting applicable data on existing employees, and discover where the gaps are. Starting the succession planning process early gives you time to assimilate data. If you don’t plan ahead, and you have an emergency push to fill a vacated position, you lose this advantage. Therefore, starting now to aggregate data can have enormous returns down the road. What kind of data? Gather information about each person’s education, work history, performance reviews, aspirations, competency levels, problem-solving abilities, learning potential, strengths, developmental imperatives, and leadership style.
When you have all the available information, do two things. First, separate skills and abilities that can be developed from those that cannot. Then, determine if you need to “grow” or “buy” the most valuable players at each level of the organization. Objective analysis is at the heart of success for this kind of process. Too often decision-makers focus on what people are like and ignore what they actually do.
Successful succession management can lower employee turnover, improve morale, fuel the leadership pipeline, and place the most qualified candidates in key positions. Clearly, succession planning is critical, and efforts to put it in place should begin immediately, but it can’t happen overnight. It will require considerable attention to design, commitment of top managers, the credibility of the planning staff, and resource allocation; but with CEO buy-in and a well-planned approach, you can begin to collect the data that will start the process.
Initially you can expect some resistance to any kind of change like this because people will worry that they won’t “pass” the tests or that they will somehow jeopardize their chances of moving forward if anyone takes the time to notice them. With time, however, people will realize that they will benefit from the opportunities to advance.
Leadership continuity and excellence is the paramount responsibility of the CEO and the board of directors, and nothing should stand in its way. It is truly no accident that the root of the word “succession” is “success.” You can’t hope to beat your competition with a plan to hit it out of the park once in a while. You need a systematic approach for hitting a grand slam every at bat. In the words of Stan Musial, “Whattayasay, whattaysay.”