Whether you're a CEO, a line supervisor, or somewhere in between, succession planning should be somewhere near your front burner. But chances are, you haven't given it much thought. If so, you're not alone. The plain fact is that while everybody understands the importance of succession planning, all too often, we don't do it.
As for what's holding us back, it's partly our collective optimism. Confidence in the future is deeply ingrained in our culture—and Americans in particular behave as if death were optional.
Then there's the widely held misperception that succession planning is only for the Wal-Marts and General Motors of the world. That's simply not true. Businesses both large and small have been crippled by the consequences of neglecting this important matter. In fact, a shallow management pool is a primary cause of small business failure.
We can't stress it enough: This is a pervasive need for every entity of every size—for all or-ganizations, and at all organizational levels. It's critical for operating departments, for supply chain func-tions within companies, for small family companies, for not-for-profits, for schools, even for governments. Legend has it that when billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg took office as New York's mayor, he toured city operations and asked managers who their replacements were. Those who couldn't an-swer—nearly all—were given 60 days to fill in the blank, with, perhaps, a hint that a re-placement could be found if there weren't a satisfactory response at the next review. Hizzoner wasn't tri-fling with the issue, and neither should you.
What is it, really?
Succession planning is the development of a documented program to provide timely replacements for all key resources in an organization. Those key resources might be executives, managers, sales and marketing rainmakers, R&D geniuses, technocrats, communicators, or any other vital cog in the complex machinery of organizational success.
The program should include mechanisms for elevating the capabilities of internal resources, as well as for recruiting mission-critical talent from the outside. It should also include protection for personal and corporate assets during a succession transition period.
Degrees of formality vary from the highly organized and complex to looser, more directional ap-proaches. That's primarily a matter of organizational culture. The foundation element is documentation, along with putting that documentation into the hands of those most likely to have to oversee succession and transition. The plan certainly isn't bulletin board material, but it can't be a single copy hidden away in a safe, the combination to which is known only to the departed.
And although elements of the succession plan need to be kept under reasonable wraps, many com-panies either volunteer—or are required—to disclose their business continuity alternatives and contingencies to their major customers.
The basic process
As for the process, it's really as simple as one-two-three. Here are the steps:
One caveat: Don't let HR drive this bus. They'll have strong proclivities for turning the process into a comprehensive corporate-wide exercise, with forms, surveys, matrices, penalties for late submissions, and little genuine regard for the operational realities of who will steer the ship when the captain has a heart at-tack.
Start at home
Even if your company has dropped the ball when it comes to succession planning, there's no reason why you shouldn't get started on your own. Find your replacement. Delegate tasks, now, to your new #2 as part of developing him or her for bigger things (such as your job). That will provide useful personal opportuni-ties:
It's not all about you, though. It's also useful to consider how making this move can benefit the overall organization. Not to mention that you may be able to introduce new and better processes, or get previously neglected tasks accomplished with a new arrangement.
Start with developing a profile of the "ideal" candidate, and don't rule out psychological factors along the way. Attitude and talent are, frankly, more important in this initiative for tomorrow than today's skills and yesterday's experience. And consider, as openly as you can, whether to liven up the party by in-troducing different managerial and leadership styles, or to stick with someone who will "blend in."
As with any complicated endeavor, there are some pitfalls to avoid. The worst mistake is the most common—simply failing to plan. But there are other traps as well.
For instance, there's the temptation to hire or promote a successor—at any level, in any func-tion—"on the cheap." Some organizations are frugal by nature, and others may try to keep their heads down during difficult economic times. But saving a few salary or bonus dollars can be an explosively false economy. We've seen organizations collapse under the weight of the low-priced and under-qualified successors they brought in.
Then there's the danger of overestimating our ability to judge who has the right stuff. Skills and ex-perience are easy to find; talent is not—and we need to know our own limitations in spotting tal-ent.
Inflexibility is also a mistake, sometimes a fatal one. Change is difficult, but it might be a survival necessity. Maintaining the status quo may initially be comforting, but it might cause you to miss the last bus to the future.
It's also easy to procrastinate, which is merely a slow and painful way of not doing what must be done. Once you come to grips with the realities that your plan doesn't exist, is hopelessly out of date, or doesn't come close to covering all the bases, you need an action agenda for plan development that includes specific assignments and responsibilities, timelines and milestones, and progress tracking and communica-tions.
What's at stake? Your organization—and your personal future.