Secrets of Succession Planning: Don't Hide Your Talent

Hiding Talent

If you are in an organization, it is wise to understand that the people you have on board are the reason you are getting the results you are getting. 

Sometimes this is a good thing, and other times, well, it’s not so good.

Planning Ahead

But whether you like the results you are getting from your people, or not, it is also wise to understand that employment at your place is optional for almost everyone there. People can mostly come and go as they please.

Consequently, being prepare for open positions makes sense to think about and is something for which you should plan.

Do’s and Dont’s of Succession Planning

So why should your organization do succession planning? Let’s start with the basics. The classical reasons would be the impending retirement of baby boom generation employees or to have a backup plan for emergencies like accidents or serious illness of some of your key players.

But there’s more to it than this simple outlook.

For instance, look at the vacancies in your organization and think about these questions:

  • How many do you fill with internal candidates?
  • How often do you need to recruit outside talent?
  • Hiring externally is costly and it takes time for the new employee to get up and running.
  • And oh, what about your current employees?

Without sufficient possibilities for growth and development within the company, they are more likely to leave.

Beating Around the Bush

I’ve steered and implemented succession planning in several companies and I’ve experienced that this topic is very often loaded with emotions. It’s not uncommon that managers fear to lose their talent to other business units. As a consequence, they try to hide their best people and nominate their second -or third- best instead.

HR and business unit leaders are afraid that the potential successors will be frustrated if the succession possibility they’re being groomed for won’t happen in the end. To avoid that from happening, they introduce non-transparent succession planning processes.

In final outcome, you end up with a process that is just very awkward for everyone

Leading in a Quagmire

Given the restrictions of said process, as a manager, you can’t really talk to your talent, but you’re supposed to groom it for a future assignment that she cannot know of.

Peers don’t officially know that this person is a talent, but I assure you this: they’ll find out in time.

Your “talent” likes the extra development and attention, but will surely ask you where this journey is going. And then there are people like me, the “people developer,” having to implement a sub-optimal process for political reasons. But these are not just my personal experiences.

In a 2012 study, AMA Enterprises, a division of the American Management Association, found that  succession planning is one of the least transparent processes in HR.

But Transparency Works!

Studies showed that the most mature talent and succession management approaches are not only transparent, but also interactive, i.e. an employee can nominate herself to be considered for a high-potential development program. I’ve tried to accomplish two things when introducing succession planning:

1. Promote a change of thought in managers from hiding talent to a company-wide giving and receiving.

2. Work towards a culture of ongoing and open feedback in which managers and employees talk about their strengths, development needs and possible future assignments.

Leading People is About Them

In an environment like this, employees understand that transitioning into a succession role is only one of several possibilities for their future development in the company.

Knowing that an employer wants to invest in you is such a big motivator!

Employees who are not currently nominated as successors will have a clear understanding of which aspects they’ll need to work on in order to get to the next level.

In essence, I believe that companies with an open feedback culture should choose a transparent approach to succession planning. If you don’t have that culture, choose an approach that works for your company and consider working towards an environment that supports a more transparent approach.

Linking Strategy, Succession and Development

You don’t do succession planning just for the sake of it, so make sure to get the most out if it.

Take these steps to link your strategy, succession goals, and the personal development of your people:

  • Look at your business strategy and develop a clear understanding where your company wants to be in, say, three years.
  • Then deduct which skills your employees need to build today to be able to perform tomorrow’s tasks.
  • Ask yourself which jobs are likely to be created, which business units likely to expand?
  • Then ask which skills do your employees need to build today to be able to perform tomorrow’s tasks?
  • After you nominated the successors, make sure to have individual development plans in place to start preparing them for their possible next career step.

This exercise will help you a great deal in making your succession planning relevant and useful for your organization. William J. Rothwell states in his article on the “Future of Succession Planning” how important it is to “integrate top-down succession planning with bottom-up career development.”

And I wholeheartedly agree with this! So don’t hide your talent! Grow them!

In summary: don’t fear to be transparent, create an open feedback culture and link strategy to career development.


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Katrin Kaehler
Katrin Kaehler steers Organizational Learning and Development
Before moving to the US, she worked in International Roles in Europe
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1 Comment

  1. jeromelbb on April 26, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Interesting article Katrin. And I agree with some degree of transparency but probably not 100%.