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Planning and Setting up for Success(ion)

There are simple ways to shift succession planning from a hypothetical replacement planning exercise to strategic planning, that truly adds organizational value.

The talent landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years. We have seen workforces navigate a global pandemic and re-evaluate what work means for them. In turn, organizations have experienced the after-effects of the Great Resignation, and a talent pool that is more mobile and global than before. With so much talk about the future of work and how organizations should be repositioning themselves, the way in which organizations are able to realign their talent management strategies will be key to success in the long term.

The evolution of talent management

The future of talent management is being defined by shifts in core approaches to talent management, across three main areas. For business leaders, this shift requires viewing talent across silos and focusing on broad organizational capabilities across all levels. For HR, it is about empowering individuals to direct and manage their own careers through enabling conversations and technology. For individuals, driving and owning their own careers through experiences and development is key.

This means that effective talent management strategies must demonstrate clear alignment to the organizational strategy and purpose, to identify the critical roles and align individuals to the overall purpose. There is an increased reliance on organizational culture and structure to reflect this skills-based approach to talent management, which allows for the effective identification and deployment of talent. Similarly, being able to plan for possible future scenarios and ensuring the readiness of talent, are key enablers to successful talent management strategy execution.

Linking talent management and succession planning

More than ever before, succession planning is a critical talent management practice, which supports the evolution of talent management in response to the changing world of work. It facilitates the proactive identification of critical roles and skills and provides an objective basis for identifying potential talent and talent pools focused on requirements for success in particular roles to increase organizational capability. This also results in development efforts that are closely aligned to succession plans, ensuring a differentiated focus on ensuring future readiness. 

Despite its strategic importance within talent management, succession planning is often criticized by business leaders as failing to add value or the expected return on investment. This misalignment is often because of common pitfalls, where succession planning becomes a hypothetical replacement planning exercise, that does not add value in the longer term. 

Effective talent management strategies must demonstrate clear alignment to the organizational strategy and purpose, to identify the critical roles and align individuals to the overall purpose.

Common pitfalls—why succession planning fails

There are several common pitfalls that detract from the potential value that succession planning holds for organizations:

  • Devoid of context
    Succession planning is often an HR-initiated activity and therefore devoid of organizational context and longer-term strategy. Succession plans subsequently do not translate into future organizational capability.

  • Focus on leadership roles
    Succession planning fails when it is synonymous with leadership replacement planning. While leadership roles may be critical to the business, value drivers across all levels should be considered, to ensure sustainability. Succession planning should enable or support leadership pipelines and readiness at all levels.

  • Overly people focused
    There is a tendency to see succession planning as the “worst-case scenario” reaction plan, should individuals leave and perpetuates the replacement planning focus. The focus should be on succession plans for skills and roles, to create flexibility and agility to respond to critical skills gaps.

  • 1:1 mapping
    Where succession planning is focused on a 1:1 replacement ratio, this does not allow for flexibility or changing future scenarios. By creating succession pools, as opposed to 1:1 mapping, more opportunities are unlocked for both individuals and the organization.

  • Paper-based exercise
    Succession planning is known for being cumbersome, time-consuming, and manual. Often driven by conversation and captured on spreadsheets, succession planning that is not supported by data and technology runs the risk of being ineffective and outdated.

  • Subjective opinion-based identification
    Successors are often not successful, based on flawed identification criteria. There is often a reliance on leader opinions to identify successors, with little objective data to support readiness and development criteria.

  • Disjointed from broader talent management strategy
    Where succession pools are not developed and retained, succession planning fails to add value. Successors are either not ready to take on different roles or leave the organization in search of external opportunities.

Best practices to shift the dial

To overcome the common challenges and pitfalls, here are some best practices to consider:

  • Succession plans should be closely aligned with the organizational strategy and capabilities. This means a shift in focus from replacement planning for people to succession pools based on critical skills.
  • Plans should include critical skills and roles across all levels of the organization, beyond only leadership. This ensures healthy pipelines and a differentiated approach for skills that are key to the sustainability of the business.
  • Talent data and technology are critical enablers to identify and manage succession pools. It provides an objective and consistent measurement of key criteria.
  • It should be a continuous process that adapts to changing circumstances and where progress is measured and iteratively improved.
  • Succession planning should be integrated into the broader talent management strategy to ensure the execution and support of succession pools.

Succession planning has a strategically important role to play in setting organizations up for success in the longer term. However, to unlock this value it has to be closely aligned to the organizational context, integrated into the broader talent strategy, and based on objective and maintainable data. This also means an investment in relevant technology that allows for agility in responding to changes and creates transparency in the identification and deployment of successors across the business.

Talk to us to explore how we can support your organization in your journey

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Marna van der Merwe

Marna is an Organizational Psychologist and Senior Professional Services Consultant at SHL. She has extensive experience in Human Resources, Organizational Effectiveness and Strategic Talent Management. Her research areas of interest are in the talent management domain, specifically the evolution of talent management in the 4IR, experience design, as well as the changing nature of careers within this context. Marna holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is currently completing her PhD research, focused on the development of an adaptive talent management model for the changing world of work.

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