How to successfully succeed at succession planning

7 minutes read
Things worth doing well are rarely easy, says Phil Sproston, UK Country Manager at Top Employers Institute - and succession planning is no exception.

The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines succession planning as focusing on “identifying and growing talent to fill business critical positions in the future.” With skills shortages in many parts of the economy and often-voiced doubts about the overall quality of leadership, the appreciation of a carefully thought-through approach to succession planning is growing. As it does, the definition itself seems to be changing. Succession planning is becoming integrated into a much broader understanding of the value of talent at all levels of the organisation. Succession planning is part of a process that is for the many, not the few. From our 2018 research into the HR conditions of over 1,300 organisations worldwide, we have seen that senior HR and talent professionals in the UK are increasingly seeing their role as growing every employee in an organisation. Andrew Armes, UK Head of Talent Acquisition for Top Employer Roche Products, the global healthcare business, speaks for many when he says: “We are here to unlock the potential of everybody in the organisation. We have moved away from the idea of focusing on the “high potential” of some, but not others. Everyone here has the potential to grow and be the best version of whatever they want to be.”


It would be unrealistic to suggest that all business roles receive the same level of attention. In any organisation, some are clearly more equal than others. There will always be certain roles that are scrutinised more closely, simply for reasons of business survival and continuity. Roche’s Armes admits that: “We do look more closely at certain key roles in terms of succession planning. We don’t want to have any gaps or vacancies at all for any role – and especially not for the business critical roles.” However, research conducted among certified organisations shows the ongoing shift in mindset among those at the top of the organisation towards a more thorough approach to career and succession management for all. Nearly all (95 percent) UK Top Employers set clear objectives for the corporate career and succession management strategy. Almost as many (93 percent) had a defined framework or model through which they delivered on this strategy. Finally, nearly nine in ten (89 percent) had a formal description of roles and responsibilities in driving career and succession management processes. And leaders are not just talking a good game but also delivering on it themselves. Almost all senior leaders (99 percent) participated regularly in succession management meetings, while nearly as many (95 percent) engaged with regular reviews and recommended improvements to the overall strategy.

The research also shows that there are at least three major drivers behind high-impact career management and succession planning strategies. The first is a deep-seated passion for internal career development and promotions, wherever possible. The research shows that 70 percent of Management/Executive positions among UK Top Employers will be filled with internal candidates. Research from Fuel50, the market leading career pathing software organisation, shows us that this is good for both employer and employee. It not only keeps the employee happy and their career moving forward – organisations who promote internally are 32 percent more likely to be satisfied with the new occupant of the role. Toni Dalgleish, HR Lead at Top Employer JTI (Japan Tobacco International) explains that their organisation enjoys longevity of service among employees: “We are massively committed to investing in our people and those who work for us. We always and instinctively look to promote internally first.” Her colleague, James Emanuel, Global Learning and Development manager says there is an enlightened pragmatism and benefit for both sides in a world where hiring from outside is becoming increasingly complex: “We are happy to support internal candidates who are nearly right for the role to accept it as part of their development. And, of itself, this creates a real sense of engagement.”

The march of technology – particularly in the form of increasingly sophisticated career and talent management software – has made succession planning at all levels less of an art and more of a science. Roche’s Armes notes that: “We have always had good movement of people around our business, but now we feel able to move people around a lot more. Technology – and the transparency it brings with it – has given us far greater and quicker insight that a particular person may be suitable for a role. In the past, it would have been slower and less clear to us who might suit a role.” A warm embrace for transparency, indeed, is the second major driver of effective succession planning among certified Top Employers. Inside and outside of the workplace, the demand for transparency has grown and it brings with it challenges. For example, some organisations may be reluctant to shine a light on who is and isn’t flourishing within their careers for fear of unsettling those who are not. It is a common challenge and a great test for the maturity of the succession planning process. For example, employees who are identified as “high-potential” in their organisation are informed of their status by nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Certified Top Employers. And yet, most organisations “don’t tell”: The Harvard Business Review reports that over three-quarters (78 percent) of businesses do not reveal all, fearing the impact on those on the borderline or late developers.

One of the challenges in reconciling transparency with succession planning is the ability of managers, from top to bottom, to be able have regular career-focused discussions with direct reports. The way these conversations are handled is vital – a manager needs to be very careful how it is communicated. The risk is creating an implied set of expectations for opportunities that may or may not develop. In spite of the dangers, other research from talent guru Josh Bersin shows us that a transparent approach has far more pluses than minuses for succession planning for the organisation, because it is clearly linked to increased engagement, retention and a culture of high performance. For example, one company in the automotive industry in Europe, found that only 40 percent of its succession plans had the desired outcomes. It had to decide whether to stop investing money into succession planning, or refresh the process to make it more effective. It chose the latter path and identified flaws in the way certain employees were nominated as candidates for succession planning, whilst others were not. By promoting more transparency for candidates to plan their professional development, it helped to focus training more effectively on their state of readiness to take on larger roles.

Transparency is of course closely aligned with the third driver of effective succession planning – the growing desire of both employer and employee alike for more regular career conversations. Here again, the Top Employers Institute’s research sheds light on why this pattern of conversation is displacing the annual appraisal – there is more to talk about. Our data shows that nearly three-quarters of UK Top Employers (74 percent) make information on job profiles freely accessible to all; that over two-thirds (68 percent) freely share information about possible career pathways and, crucially, the development needed by employees to advance; and that almost all managers (96 percent) are expected to actively promote team member development, even if that means their promotion to another department. There is a strong contrast here with “average” employers, where the reticence to hold regular career conversations is based on a misplaced fear that expectations will be overblown and that key employees will leave. James Emanuel points to an important benefit to the managers of talented individuals – that regular career conversations have improved their peripheral vision: “It used to be that team leaders thought more about the opportunities for development within their team. We have now enabled them to have more meaningful conversations with their talent through a broader view of opportunities across the business.” Effective succession planning takes time, money and careful thought, but certified Top Employers are adamant that investment in this area can be repaid many times over. Many things worth doing are not easy, including succession planning. The complexities are many, but those HR professionals who focus on the case for rewarding internal talent, allowing transparency to flourish wherever possible, and allowing more regular career conversations give organisations the best possible opportunity to make smooth and effective succession planning the norm, rather than the exception.

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How to successfully succeed at succession planning

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