Book Brief - Succession Planning That Works

What we do as talent professionals is so much more than a one-time event capturing the results of a performance calibration session or succession planning review. Our primary role is to connect the dots. In succession planning we are connecting the dots from talent identified on a succession bench to the competencies and skill development needed to prepare that talent to step into the bench seat. And that's just one of the dots that need connecting. I'm always on the lookout for talent experts and resources that help make those connections clear and keep it simple so that we can translate great ideas into practice.


I was seeking new perspectives on succession planning, and came across a book by Michael Timms, Succession Planning That Works: The Critical Path of Leadership Development. Timms is one of those experts who makes those connections clear.

In this book, he provides a step-by-step approach to succession planning that uses talent and leadership development initiatives to create and develop pipelines for critical roles. I appreciate the holistic viewpoint that Timms shares - that succession planning isn't a one-time activity. That's replacement planning, and while important, does not include the key development activities that we should undertake to build a healthy succession pipeline.


In this Book Brief, we'll talk about four points Timms shares that support an excellent succession planning process. As a reminder, Book Briefs offer talent development-specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. Not a review. Not a synopsis. A few bullets that you can apply to your daily TD life.


I also appreciate how Timms calls out the importance of employee engagement as an outcome of effective succession planning.


"When most employees don't see a career path for themselves in their organization, they will eventually look elsewhere to advance their careers. Furthermore, employees who see key positions continually being filled by outsiders will become disenfranchised and adopt the attitude of 'Why try hard if that won't get me anywhere'" (p 10).

Exactly!


Timms sets context for succession planning with a 21-step Succession Planning Critical Path framework divided into three categories:

  1. Fundamentals of Talent Management

  2. Fundamentals of Succession Planning

  3. Scale it Up (p 20)

He connects each step within this framework to an element of the talent management process connecting that element to succession planning outcomes. Each section provides clear basics, along with examples of organizations who applied the concepts effectively. I also like how he ends each chapter with a "Keeping It Simple" summary to keep us focused on the key points.


And lest we forget the purpose of succession planning:


"The key to successfully executing a succession planning program is to keep a laser focus on the primary objective, which is building leadership capacity…" (p 20).

Spot on. Alright, let's dive in.


Identify Critical Positions

One of the trickiest parts of succession planning, I find, is the ability to hone the discussion in on those roles that are critical to an organization's current priorities. A discussion on which role is "critical" sometimes hits us as unfair or that we will be sending a message to talent that their role isn't important when that is certainly not the case. Also, don't we want to make room for all talent to grow and expand their capabilities?

I like how Timms addresses this concern. He gives guidance to begin with a narrow scope to keep the process manageable - that getting succession planning right with a small group of key roles will serve the organization well, allow us to get the most bang for the buck, and set us up to scale to additional roles in the future. He also provides handy questions and a critical position assessment that help discern whether a current position is one that should be prioritized into the succession plan. A few of those questions include:

  • If the position were left vacant would it cause serious difficulties in delivering on the company's commitments and corporate priorities?

  • What is the likelihood that an incumbent will leave the role in 2-3 years?

  • Would the position be difficult to fill due to location or language? (p 89).

He also recommends the use of a 4x4 matrix plotting replacement difficulty and business impact. Identifying the roles that will be hard to fill against business imperatives provides a strategic, impartial manner to assess critical roles (p 93). I like this matrix as it causes us to think critically about where we are investing talent development attention. Lately, I fall into the camp that everyone needs development opportunities. But my business hat causes me to challenge that we will not be able to invest in everyone equally due to resource constraints. As a side note, I think mentoring programs may be one solve for the opportunity to offer all employees development. Stay tuned, more on mentoring below.

Timms wraps up this section with a reminder to not confuse critical roles with critical people. Great talent can cause us to consider a role critical when it's really the talent filling the seat. Focus retention planning on those star performers instead of addressing them through the succession planning process.

Monitor Progress Against Goals

What gets measured gets done. I find that old adage to be true. Just as the marketing function identifies a handful of measures to indicate success, so should we in HR. Tom Peters, the management guru, shares this advice: "…urge every organizational unit in every function to develop key quality measures. Progress should be posted on charts in every work space, and a quantitative goal report should be the first item of business at every staff meeting…"

Timms dedicates a section in his framework for measuring success. He recommends some of the same metrics that you're likely familiar with:

  • Percent of critical roles filled with internal candidates

  • Turnover among high potentials

  • Percent of promotions within talent identified on succession plans (p 153)

He also recommends that keeping metrics simple and targeted are best practices for most organizations. He found that larger organizations use various tools to visually show leadership pipelines, and shared two that I enjoyed noodling how to apply to my organization:

1. Critical Position Risk Assessment Calculator

The Risk Assessment Calculator gives a numerical way to assess whether a role has a strong internal pipeline or is a risk to the organization because of a lack of successors.

2. Talent Career Map

The Talent Career Map identifies employees with the potential to progress within the organization in one of four categories, such as business support or business development. I like this approach, as it assess individuals versus roles. It would be a good tool to use to develop talent cross-functionally.

Create a Custom Leadership Development Program

I like that Timms includes leadership development as an initiative to take on in the third step of his framework, Scale it Up. We often begin with leadership development, but it's smart to identify competencies and general performance trends to give us an idea of leadership skills needed.

What I really appreciate about Timms guidance is the importance of the personal development plan (PDP). You may have heard it called an individual development plan (IDP). Whatever the name, we should do them. PDPs / IDPs contain so much more than attending this or that class. It's about the next skillset you want to add to your capabilities and how to go about building it - maybe a new assignment, rotational opportunity or mentorship. There are so many ways to build skillsets that aren't in the classroom. A well developed IDP can be a powerful tool. He says "a leadership development program is a performance accelerator. It may fast-track [an employee's] development, but it won't work unless the PDP is already revving fairly high" (p 179).

Establish a Mentorship Program

I've been doing a lot of thinking about mentoring programs lately and how critical they should be for talent management programing. They are key to employee engagement, retention, diversity & inclusion efforts and talent development.

CNBC conducted a study with Survey Monkey in 2019 on workplace happiness. They found that of almost 8,000 part and full-time workers studied, "more than 9 in 10 (91%) who have a mentor are satisfied with their jobs, including more than half (57%) who are 'very satisfied.'" Further, "among those who don’t have a mentor, each of those numbers drop by double digits." The study also shares that workers with mentors report that they have opportunities to advance their careers, especially for those at the individual contributor and manager levels.

Timms shares there are three important building blocks of effective mentorship programs. Let's talk about one of those - training for mentors. Timms encourages training for mentors on how to structure discussions and overall how to make the most of the relationship. I agree! We've found providing training and structure upfront for both mentors and mentees has been best practice. I like how Training Magazine states this: "for mentoring to achieve its objectives – with high engagement in a 'safe space' where both mentee and mentor can learn and grow – a thoughtful and intentional structure is essential. It’s this formalized structure behind a great mentoring program that allows what could be awkward and uncomfortable to be instead focused, comfortable and impactful."

To further the importance of mentoring programs, I'm interested in learning next how mentorships evolve into sponsorships. Do they typically only evolve from mentorship relationships? How do you establish, develop and scale sponsorships? I'm interested in learning your opinions. Sign up and leave a comment. I'd welcome your advice.

I hope I've peaked your interest to learn more about Michael Timm's integrated approach to succession planning in Succession Planning That Works: The Critical Path of Leadership Development. We've discussed just four steps in his 21-step process. You have 17 more to cover.


Endnote:

Timms, Michael. Succession Planning That Works: The Critical Path of Leadership Development. FriesenPress. 2016.

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