Columns / Positive Cultures

Succession planning: Will they miss you when you're gone?

May 1, 2014
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A vast number of us Baby Boomers are gradually aging out of the workforce, perhaps later than we’d like. Consequently, companies must acquaint themselves with the “popcorn effect.” Today’s young, educated, talented workers are much more likely to job-shop and job-hop. Former students of mine who graduated within the last 10-15 years (and so are in their early/mid-to-late 30s), have worked with around 3-5 different companies at this stage of their careers.

One reason for this “popcorn effect” is technology. So much information is available today over the internet about job opportunities. A couple of hours spent casually surfing company websites for job postings or professional networking and support sites like LinkedIn can turn up literally dozens of relevant, interesting opportunities. This treasure trove of opportunities simply was not accessible until recent times.

Another factor is that decision-makers in the organizational world, under the influence of persuasive writers like Jim Collins (author of the blockbuster Good to Great), have widely come to accept that “the right people” make all the difference, and it is easier to search for and hire “proven right stuff” than it is to take a generic new-hire and train him or her to be a star performer. Recognizing this, search firms increasingly develop portfolios of star performers, and call upon this pool with increasing frequency as positions become available in companies that might prefer to hire known top talent.

Also, young people have looked at the experience of their parents and grandparents, and observed that in some cases loyalty to the company was not reciprocated. The experience of how some large companies have handled downsizings, etc., has encouraged the young to “watch out for #1”.

Anticipate turnover

Even as the number of jobs in the U.S. market shrinks, opportunity still exists for the educated and ambitious. To a significant extent it is still a buyer’s market: “Go where there is more of what you are looking for — salary, benefits, position, growth opportunity, an equity stake, location, reduced travel, or whatever...” And remember, many of the old guard are aging out and opening up even more attractive career options.    

Proactive organizations anticipate turnover. They are aware of mission-critical positions and performers, and their age. They are aware the senior resource could go soon. They are also aware that when they hire a bright young, talented professional straight out of college or grad school, or away from another company (thank you, headhunter), that young man or woman will have other options.

These organizations engage actively in the critical process of succession planning. They identify positions that must be filled with top talent, and they identify internal high-potential individuals who might be groomed to fill one of those mission-critical positions when they become available. They also keep an eye out in the professional marketplace, in case the position opens up too soon for an internal high-potential to be groomed, or if the nature of the position and the internal pool is such that it is essential to go outside.

Identify your core positions, and identify internal high-potentials who might be groomed to take them at some point. Identifying the positions makes us mindful that some are indeed mission-critical, and we ought to have a back-up plan for each one. Retirements are relatively predictable; the “hot-shot recruited away” somewhat less so. But the sudden catastrophic loss of a key individual is not predictable at all.

Bench strength

For your mission-critical positions, have a bench strength of at least one for each position. Don’t promise your high-potentials they will become the next VP of Safety, but make them know the company sees them as high-potential, and will invest in them and their future with the company.

I’ve seen dramatic exceptions to the general principle that retirements are relatively predictable. In one case, a mission-critical plant chemical engineer, with unique knowledge and skill, and no “bench” below him, took a sweet early retirement option and left suddenly. His plant had to bring him back (virtually the next day) on a generous consulting contract, to run his crucial part of the operation and to start the long overlooked process of grooming a successor.

Even when retirements are predictable, many organizations do not develop a succession planning process. Think of it as risk management. You need a ready answer to the “what would happen if...” question applied to mission-critical positions. 

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