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How to Avoid Disruption in Your Succession Plan

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa May 28, 2019

Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Hosting Succession Planning MeetingFor this feature article, OnPoint Consulting managing partner Darleen DeRosa teams up with RSR Partners CEO Barrett Stephens to provide their latest insight into how to navigate successful succession planning.

Public company CEOs have an average tenure of five years. This is a result of activist engagement, technology disruption, and shifts in strategic direction. Even companies like GE, that were once renowned for having robust succession planning for executive positions, have now been forced to address gaps caused by unexpected succession events.

With recent high-profile incidents that have called for CEOs to step down, it's evident that ongoing board oversight of culture and CEO succession planning must operate in tandem (e.g., Martin Winterkorn, Travis Kalanick, and Steve Wynn). Not having a well-thought-out succession planning process that incorporates cultural fit is a huge mistake, and boards are paying close attention. A study of the world's 2,500 largest public companies shows that companies that scramble to find replacements for departing CEOs forgo an average of $1.8 billion in shareholder value.

Disruption of succession has become a significant problem for chief human resources officers (CHROs) who need to provide leadership options for their boards that are different than the normal state of business. In the long-run, it can be an opportunity for companies to better align their talent with their strategic direction.

The Succession Planning Dilemma

CEOs and CHROs need to build a succession plan roadmap that includes scenario planning for a variety of timelines and unforeseen events.  

Shareholder impatience has put pressure on boards for improved performance. As a result, companies are being forced to divest or spinoff their portfolio of businesses, or in other circumstances, make changes to the executive leadership team. However, many companies do not have the bench strength internally to address the capability gaps. But they also do not want to signal their strategic intent to the market prematurely. In our eyes, several best practices have emerged to address these issues.

Imperative Steps for CEOs and CHROs

Identify Mission-Critical Roles

Evaluate positions that are critical to the success of the organization to develop success profiles for those roles. In other words, what does success look like for these critical roles? This will be helpful when it comes time to assess potential candidates for these roles.

Assess Bench Strength

Develop a comprehensive understanding of the organization's leadership bench strength to identify existing and future areas of need. Using the success profile as a centerpiece, assess individual capabilities and their leadership potential to assume larger roles. These assessments should focus on the core capabilities of agile leadership, evaluating an employee’s ability to connect, adapt, and deliver while also demonstrating personal resilience.

Plan Ahead

A scenario analysis makes it possible to work through various timelines and succession planning examples. This knowledge helps to identify potential succession opportunities. Conducting a potential problem analysis can also identify the internal and external threats to the business and industry and to the incumbents in each strategic position.

Accelerate Development for Key Leaders

Assessment data should determine targeted development needs for top succession candidates with the potential to become agile leaders. Senior leaders should meet periodically to review progress toward development goals and ensure high-potential leaders have exposure in key areas as well as other resources to support their development throughout the succession planning process. This information can also be used to facilitate onboarding once leaders are promoted as well as identify mentoring and coaching opportunities.

Engage and Retain High-Potential Employees

Ensure every high-potential leader's direct manager is involved in creating a work environment that enhances engagement. Actions such as providing autonomy, clarifying a sense of purpose, and providing opportunities to learn and grow increases the likelihood of retention and the organization's return on investment in these individuals.

Create a List of External Candidates

Developing a short list of external leadership options provides an organization with options for addressing unexpected gaps in the succession plan. This list could be developed internally or in conjunction with a leadership consulting firm to provide potential leadership ideas. It is imperative to work with a firm that can ensure maximum confidentially and discretion without signaling the company's future intentions to the marketplace.

If CEOs and CHROs work with their boards proactively, rather than reactively, the risk of succession plan disruption can be mitigated. In return, boards should monitor their leadership team's succession planning process. In this light, the CEO and CHRO should regularly present assessments of the key members of their team to identify and evaluate candidates — both internal and external — for succession. Leadership consulting firms can play a critical role in these processes.

While added expertise will help avoid succession disruption, it cannot change the fact that, relative to the quarterly drives for performance, succession planning is a non-financial and long-term initiative. A new mindset must be instilled in today's corporate boardrooms to increase confidence in the future prospects — and successful leadership — of the world's public companies.

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Topics: Leadership Development, succession management

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