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Succession planning and leadership development go hand in hand. When both elements receive the required attention, often the transition into the senior position is smooth and achievable, setting individuals up for success. Challenges seem to occur when the process of succession planning is followed, but with little prior attention given to leadership development.  

By Katherine Farnworth, Leadership, Skills and Social Impact Advisor

Consider the following elements to build on the information shared in the ‘Business Succession Planning’ article. 

1. Start with the values of the organisation

Succession planning can be one of many tools to positively reflect the culture of an organisation.  Link succession planning to the values of the business so it can be positively embedded into the desired culture. For example, if the values of an organisation are ‘building on success’, ‘empowering people’, and ‘making a positive difference’ then how succession planning is implemented can be a real-life example of how that organisation lives its values.  It can demonstrate how the leaders role model great leadership, how they communicate and collaborate with the workforce, and how ultimately, they can perpetuate a positive culture.

2. Develop ‘As If’ for future success

The high potential candidates are very often expert in their field and have excelled.  It is when they are faced with more generic senior leadership demands that challenges can occur. When there is a need to have a more strategic view of more areas of the business, for example public relations, finance, managing acquisitions or design.  It is then that the new leader finds themselves in unfamiliar territory.  Admittedly, the leader does not need to be an expert in every one of those areas, but familiarity can build confidence and better decision making when required. 

In order to create the conditions where such a transition becomes a successful transformation, consider providing opportunities for individuals to operate ‘as if’ they are already in position. Consider a job rotation, or a particular business required project where a high potential team can work together to provide a real-time approach and solution.  Or, if an individual takes on the challenge alone, they can potentially demonstrate their leadership flexibility and capability.  Such ‘action learning’ can reveal the opportunities for development but also the strengths that can be harnessed in order to make a success of the future role, all in a safe environment.

3. No secrets here

Transparency can work well in succession planning.  Each company can make a judgement call on how transparent they will be in order to motivate the high achievers, whilst at the same time, not demotivate those that are further down the line of succession.  Incidentally, this can also be a great opportunity to reward for great performance when people want to stay in position.  There is not enough space for everyone to be a future senior leader, nor does everyone want to be!

However, regarding succession planning when developing the leadership pipeline, it is often just the senior leadership team who are aware of the ‘potential profile’ of the individuals within the organisation but not necessarily the individuals themselves.  This ‘cloak and dagger’ approach can feel a little old school now and can potentially create mistrust and ambiguity. 

Why not take this as an opportunity to ‘coach through’ succession planning?  This can build in a coaching culture at the same time, which often has the added boost of positively reinforcing those values we mentioned earlier.  For example, leaders can open up the succession plans to the individuals and rather than tell an individual ‘you are here’, instead ask ‘where do you believe you are’, ‘why do you say that’, ‘what needs to happen to get you to the next stage?’.  The individual is invited to be honest about their current performance without judgement, but has no doubt already given great thought regarding what needs to happen so they can grow for the next stage of their career.  The leader can confirm agreement or offer a more workable solution having more insight into the resources available.  Either way, this can feel a much more collaborative conversation. 

This approach also goes a long way to creating a ‘brain friendly’ environment by addressing each element of David Rock’s SCARF model, reinforcing the individual’s ‘Status’, providing ‘Certainty’ and ‘Autonomy’, and develops ‘Relatedness’ (relationships) and ‘Fairness’.  The leaders are saying ‘I trust you to rate your current performance and am empowering you to make decisions about your development, and your future, letting you know how I can realistically best support you’.  Not only is the leader role-modelling the values of the organisation through empowering leadership, but this can enhance honest communication between both parties.  In David Rock’s book ‘Quiet Leadership’, he is all about the leader creating a brain friendly environment to get the best from people.

4. Measure progress

If the high potential population have in essence created their own action plan for the future, with contribution from their leader, they are more motivated to take responsibility to make it work.  They seek to demonstrate their successes but also honest about the challenges they faced with such transparent and open conversations. 

This can keep the leadership development on track to maybe highlight when someone is not ready (often with their agreement) but also reinforces a deeper level of confidence when the individual is ready to progress to the next stage.  A more robust succession plan evolves for the organisation who can move more confidently forward, being aware of where there may potentially be gaps, but also knowing who will be the next generation of leaders from within.

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