I’m on a roll with the topic of succession planning lately. Funny how that happens: one person asks about it, and not too long afterwards someone else has another question, and then it gets me thinking even more. The most recent piece of advice I gave was about succession planning criteria.
It’s always my recommendation first and foremost to dedicate the time and effort needed to strategically design (or re-design) any experience to be had in an organization, including something as important as succession planning. Design of Work Experience (DOWE) provides the framework to do that. However, I recognize that time, money, and other resources may not always be available to do that for everything. My warning: every experience that doesn’t reflect your intended culture has the potential to erode it--which has a negative impact on your business.
Startups—you may think it’s too early to think about succession but you know as much as I do that people come and go all the time. During this seminal phase in the life of your company, do you want lack of planning around critical roles to impact your business?
All that aside, the latest inquiry was likely looking for something fairly quick when they asked, “Anyone have good sample criteria you can share for determining critical positions for succession planning purposes?” It’s one thing to be curious about what other organizations have used. However, criteria should be derived from the unique context of the organization--what's important in one place may not be as important in another. There are plenty of examples of this. What works in one place fails spectacularly in another. Why? Context.
The other thing—it’s important to distinguish between criteria for critical roles vs. criteria for critical talent—they are not the same. Sometimes that’s forgotten. For the purposes of identifying critical roles, try this fairly quick approach and see how that compares to your current criteria:
1. If it’s a hierarchy structure, force rank the roles by level. Otherwise, try by function or by impact for achieving the business strategy. If you have the opportunity, try it all three ways and see how similar or different they net out.
2. Align the top leaders around the ranking through rigorous discussion. If people aren’t on the same page it simply won’t be successfully implemented.
3. Reverse engineer the criteria based on the discussion. What are the common themes that emerged? What does that say about what the organization values? How does reality differ from aspiration? Where do culture and strategy connect or disconnect?
In the absence of a comprehensive approach, what this exercise does is elicit engagement and discussion often neglected in many organizations. Most are focused on the task of completing the process as a routine, and they’ve forgotten the strategic value of why they are doing it. As many of us experience as we get older, we tend to want to focus our energies on only that which is most worthy of our time. Forget mindless routines that lack purpose and look for meaning in everything you do—including succession planning!
I was recently asked my two cents on executive succession, so I thought I would share them with all of you too. These thought starters are by no means exhaustive, but taking action with these in mind can improve the effectiveness of your succession programs.
First of all, there’s lots of research out there that spans the range from big firms to academia. They offer good foundational knowledge of the concepts, but they fall short of considering context. That’s because it’s up to every organization to incorporate—only many don’t. They skip this critical next step and go straight to implementing best practices. I believe what's missing is organizations' ability to uniquely define what they need out of their current and future leaders. This is why a leader might be successful in one place, but a failure in another. I make the argument in the book to begin with building organizational self-awareness and a deep understanding of the context. That way, solutions are customized for the needs of the business and its people. This is the initial approach to my client engagements.
There should also be integration among succession planning, leadership development, workforce planning, and other people strategies and programs so everything reinforces one another and aligns around common objectives that ultimately support the business mission and strategy. In many organizations these functions live in siloes, each working on different things. All you get as a result is a lot of fragmentation. I recommend the creation of holistic people strategies using Design of Work Experience (DOWE) as the process to drive a common talent agenda.
If your company uses personality assessments or surveys, they should be treated as one of multiple data points for the purposes of building self-awareness and developmental plans. Using them for "predictive" purposes--i.e. to determine whether someone would be a successful leader in the future (or not) has been proven to be problematic per research. If you are going with assessments, choose ones that use or are based upon the Big 5 Personality Traits. They’ve stood the test of time and remain in practice after rigorous scientific study and validation. This is also why Myers-Briggs remains tried and true.
Coaching at the senior levels can be of help (also per research), as long as they are managed well strategically. It can be a costly program from a time and money standpoint, but it does help those that are "lonely at the top" and lack the support systems to gain broader perspectives beyond their own. The challenge with coaching is that there is such a broad range of specialties, providers, and--quite frankly--capabilities. Add in the individual situation of each executive to be coached, and you can imagine how hard it is to make the right pairing. Proceed with caution and celebrate successes.
Just for fun, if I were to choose just one competency to foster, it would be learning agility. This falls under the Big 5's openness factor. Current assessments out there have not been fully vetted, but the new instrument coming out of my alma mater, Columbia University, shows a lot of promise and has been created with academic integrity. Led by one of organizational psychology’s icons, W. Warner Burke (of the Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change), you can learn more from this previous post and stay tuned for updates.
Speaking of organizational performance and change, consider the design of the executive transition experience, and change management for their new and old organizations. This helps to avoid potential pitfalls that prevent smooth transitions. I’m sure many of you out there have examples of where these have not gone well, so I won’t belabor the point.
I also recommend organizations follow though with learning and development AFTER succession--all the way up through the C-suite. I wrote a post back in February that speaks to this very point. Think about what happens next, once they get there.
Start with these six, and you will undoubtedly uncover what else your organization’s needs. As usual, feel free to connect or discuss with me further. Thanks for reading!
I’ve always wondered why talent management and succession planning ended with the layer beneath the top leadership roles. Once people have what they believe to be a sufficient number of names to fill in for those top slots, the pipeline is declared robust and people congratulate themselves on a job well done. No one ever thinks about talent management and development for the C-suite, which includes the CEO and their direct reports. Many organizations operate this way. Ever notice how there are fewer development opportunities as one moves up the ladder? Despite the terminology, leadership development is often reserved for the up and comers. Lack of leadership development for the leaders themselves is yet another reason why it’s lonely at the top. Leaders play into this as well. They think they’ve made it. It’s always the deeply flawed ones that act like they have nothing more to learn—and there are lots of them.
Once a leader is in place, the assumption is that there are 3 three options left: ouster, retirement, or a better role at another company. I propose a fourth option—the leader’s next role at the right time. Let me explain. If the ultimate aim of “good” talent management is about putting the right person in the right role in the right environment, why not extend that to the top leadership roles? You see, just like all other talent, leaders have their strengths. It’s about matching that talent with the right opportunities. Those opportunities are created by availability of the role combined with particular business needs. Presumably, companies intend to put the right leader in place to fulfill those needs at that point in time. If you need someone to build up a business, you get someone who is good at that. You wouldn’t want someone who is good at maintaining things. Both types can be good leaders, but only in the right environment suited to their capabilities. In other words, there’s a leader for every season. This is how CEOs have built reputations on Wall Street around certain archetypes—i.e. those that specialize in turnaround, strategy, operations, new business, pleasing shareholders, etc. There are very few chiefs in the executive suites known for being “all arounds”. These leaders for all seasons are a rare breed. There should be more of them, hence the need to manage and develop talent at the top.
Given the speed and fluctuations of business, needs change. Once a particular leader has fulfilled the set of previous needs and new needs arise, it is time to look at whether another leader with different experience and strengths is required. Very few organizations manage this well. The recent announcements of two founding CEOs stepping aside for the growth of their business are welcome examples where succession planning and a leader’s self-awareness can work together. It helps organizations foster the maturity of their business, realize their strategies, and manage change. Think about how painful the alternative is: leaders that won’t let go, political upheaval with boards, businesses suffering under the wrong leadership, bad PR, etc.
If I had my druthers, here is how talent management at the top would happen:
1. There should be an emphasis on the right person, in the right job, in the right environment all the way to the top. It’s not about when someone is due for that promotion or appointment, but rather whether they are ready to fulfill the role in the context of the current business needs.
2. Organizations should focus on building more all around leaders, or leaders for all seasons. That means putting the right leader for the season in place and managing their development to expose them to their growth areas. They might lead in one area, but be a learner in another. Those that want to stick with their specialty or passion as leaders for one season should plan for the next role, internally or externally. In all cases, an organization should plan ahead with their leaders what markers or achievements will indicate readiness to move on. While we’re at it, why don’t we extend this to the boards? Make board members better board members for time that they are there, partner them with the C-suite to manage true leadership development and succession planning.
Remember those 3 other options? They still exist. The complexities of leading companies can’t be minimized. However, this fourth option allows organizations to plan for inevitable change more purposefully, and with less drama. It is my belief that talent management of the C-suite is a green field opportunity, primed for experience design à la Design of Work Experience (DOWE) and additional research.
Reaching the pinnacle of one’s career should be recognized. It is truly an achievement to make it to the C-suite. It is this outsider’s opinion that we should treat these people not as deities or despots to depose, but as what they truly are: top talent.
Image Credit: Kimmins Design
In the book, I talk about how different the #FutureofWork will be. With more work to be done than professionals, it is within the realm of possibility that we will become free agents and freelancers, working on projects that best suit our talents and ambitions, across different companies, industries and even countries. In Free Agent Nation, Daniel Pink referred to this as the “Hollywood model”. I found inspiration from this as I forged into my portfolio career almost two years ago, choosing to do what I love 100% of the time: research, writing, consulting, public speaking, and creative pursuits.
Companies of the future who need knowledge workers and experts will have to figure out how to meet business demands with transient talent. For high turnover workforces such as in the retail and restaurant industries, it is today’s reality. Other industries have their own revolving door jobs, mostly in their hourly staff as well. Not enough is done to manage these work experiences, so companies live with higher volumes of employee relations issues, labor disputes, and constant recruitment/termination cycles. It doesn’t have to be this way. A January 2012 article from Harvard Business Review talks about choosing the virtuous cycle (good results) over the vicious cycle (poor outcomes), and how making these jobs “good” will decrease turnover, increase efficiency, and positively impact customer perceptions. (Source: Why Good Jobs are Good for Retailers) Some exemplary retail shops and restaurants have proven this to be true, though any organization can create their own way of doing this, regardless of industry. Here are a few suggestions on where to start from a Design of Work Experience (DOWE) perspective:
1. Make It a Great Place to COME FROM. Similar to other parts of the organization, collaborate with your employees to design a culture and environment that exemplifies your company’s values and ties work (at all levels) to the achievement of the business strategy. Create an environment where people feel valued, find meaning in their work, and collaborate well with others. Tap into the natural human desire to make a difference and learn new things. Establish ways to track achievement even in the most repetitive jobs. Enable employees to have great relationships at work. In other words, set the conditions for success.
You can also use this workforce to provide key insights on customer experiences, perceptions, and interactions that will improve your business. Word will get out as employees brag about their workplaces to their friends and family, knowing that it is a privilege to be a part of something so cool. The good ones will want to stay or stay longer. Those that move on to their next employers will remain loyal customers for life. Who knows? They might advance their careers and return one day to lead in greater capacities. Ultimately, the good reputation of your company will ensure you will always have enough applicants, plus a strong brand to boot.
2. Invest Efforts in Finding the Right People. No matter what degree of skill is required for the job, you want good people who are aligned with your values, take pride in their work, and are honest and ethical. Design your recruitment experience to weed out those that ultimately won’t work out and select for those that will. The standard interview questions won’t do. Create a recruitment experience unique to your company that engages people, digs beyond the surface, and gives you a chance to observe behavior and capabilities.
3. Be Consistent. Treat standards of performance and conduct for what they are—standards. This takes the guess work out for people because they will know what to expect and where the boundaries are. Don’t settle for “ok” or “good enough”, and don’t let things slide. Doing so would give you a workplace with middle performance at best and a tendency to decline. Too often frustrated employees have complained about those that “get away with” things, raising fairness concerns. Address issues through to resolution quickly, whether it means coaching, providing feedback, or even termination. Your stronger workers will appreciate this, and it minimizes stress for everyone.
These principles will help you determine what works best according to the unique context and complexity of your organization. While these are not easy to do and will require some work, the benefits far outweigh the cost in the long-term. Begin your “virtuous cycle” today, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Check out this opinion piece from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, "Recruit Me With A Manicure" as food for thought. There is hardly any topic about diversity that doesn't stir up strong emotions or controversy amongst people. As a woman of color, my life experiences and culture studies have informed how I feel about this. Separate from that, we can respond to this article from a Design of Work Experience (DOWE) perspective. It expands our understanding of the concept, and also gives us a different way of looking at this long-debated topic. Let's look at this hypothetically:
1. First, a company could articulate the archetype of qualities that would be successful there--not what they would like, but what would realistically work in that culture. If it doesn't look pretty, I would suggest some transformation work to set the right conditions for top talent to thrive. Gender (as in the case of this article) wouldn't be a quality per se, but the company might decide that the hired group as a whole should reflect diversity to leverage its benefits.
2. Once they know what they are looking for, perhaps they would go out to understand the behaviors and motivations of candidates. They could look for ways in how those aforementioned qualities are demonstrated and select the people that exemplify them best. To attract these target people to their company, perhaps they follow their activities, interests, and interactions. Then they go out and meet them there. In the process, they might discover that some of these candidates enjoy manicures, so they host an recruitment event at a nail bar.
Not as controversial sounding now, huh? It makes sense. A DOWE approach lets the target candidates define the recruitment activities, which makes the company more attractive to them. It ensures a strong job-person-company fit-match, thus ensuring greater hiring success and retention. Compare that to how some things happen today, where companies don't set the conditions for success, think hiring for job requirements is enough, recruitment activities are always the same, matches aren't that strong, and hiring success rate hovers around the 50% mark (thanks, Google). Convinced? Now design for the on boarding experience, DOWE-style!
Here's an interesting news story about the short tenure of the Today Show's GM after 10 weeks on the job. You can click on the pic above to learn more or check out this CNN article that provides some more perspective from behind the scenes. My favorite line was that he was "doing the right thing the wrong way." Something tells me that it was more than just that, but I love the insight. While the buzz here shall pass, it does prompt us to reminisce about other short-lived stints, like Bill Perez's 13-months with Nike back in 2006. Contrary to what the top 10 listers would tell you, each and every one of these had very different circumstances with only one thing in common: job-person (mis)match. Though it is easy to criticize what these leaders did wrong (and they might have), I am more apt not to blame specific people. I'm much more critical of the circumstances, however. How purposeful was the selection? What conditions were set for failure vs. success? Did anyone, ANYONE look at the culture? Sometimes it just doesn't work out, but it behooves us to learn from it every single time. Just my two cents :)
Last weekend, we went with some friends to the Hot Air Music Festival in San Francisco. It had been a while since we last enjoyed live music, and it stirred me in more ways than one. I was impressed that the students at the SF Conservatory of Music figured out a way to market their recital in order to draw a larger audience (donations welcome, but the event was free). There was even a logo, fancy website, and t-shirt. College performances are often attended by really supportive friends (in my experience anyway). While small by music festival standards, there was definitely more than just friends enjoying the showcase. Good move, students! As a dormant musician, it gave me a desire to pick up my flute or piano again at the earliest opportunity (both are sadly in storage at the moment). I was awe-struck with the latest developments in the instrumental world. Clearly I had not been keeping up with things. There were some esoteric pieces for sure, but also some interesting setups including some “non-traditional” ensembles (flute, marimba/xylophone, cello, electric guitar) and a piece that incorporated a PowerPoint presentation timed with the music (I wonder if that makes the projector an instrument too?). I especially looked forward to the percussion duet and was not disappointed (pictured above). Such interesting stuff performed by top talent.
Inevitably my thoughts wandered toward seeing all these musical collaborations as an analogy for organizational life. Others have done this as well. Max DePree’s Leadership Jazz: The Essential Elements of a Great Leader and Rosamund & Ben Zander’s The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life quickly come to mind. It’s easy to see how a great conductor can bring together all the parts of an orchestra or band to create beautiful music. Everyone is extremely talented, capable, and fully utilized. The conductor is a leader that guides a group of willing followers. Musicians are recognized with a post-concert bow. An audience is there is give immediate feedback. Digging deeper, a musical ensemble of any kind is a fascinating phenomenon where both individual and the group status are aligned and maintained simultaneously (lots of articles out there on individual vs. group interests). When musicians are playing music, membership within that group is unquestioned in that moment. Where it really counts during a performance, everyone steps up their game and the output is literally music to our ears. We know that such heightened awareness and engagement is impossible to sustain 100% of the time. After all, concerts typically last no more than 3 hours. Imagine what the musical quality and performance would be like on a 24/7 cycle. So how do we recreate the performance of a lifetime in organizations when a great opportunity arises? These are and have to be temporary situations or you can help yourself to a big serving of organizational fatigue. In addition, not everyone in your organization will be directly involved because you have to keep the lights on without business disruption. Perhaps there is a group or a team assembled to meet the challenge, a SWAT team, if you will. Your organization may have your own terminology for it. SWAT is an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics, which seems so apropos in the competitive business world. How do we pick the right SWAT team? Let’s take a lesson from these student musicians and mix it up. Organizations are apt to choose based on availability, job title, politics and/or the usual suspects. Sometimes that means you get a crappy conductor and sub-par or tired musicians that don’t maximize that opportunity. Mix it up, call in that electric guitar, and focus on getting the best of the best talent for that particular business challenge, regardless of job title. Ensure each team member has an important part to play. Empower them to challenge the status quo and re-invent things like the duet for percussionists. Give them the audience that establishes purpose and feedback they need. Don’t be afraid to change the members in and out of the team. And finally, market the work like a music festival so people pay attention. You’ll be assured an extra special SWAT team experience.
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