It’s succession planning time again, and your organization is likely faced with identifying and planning the development of employees who will “one day” replace existing leaders. For many leaders, brainstorming potential successors is easy, similar to adding items to your Amazon cart.
However, you eventually have to determine the time frame of each successor’s readiness to lead and defend your point of view in a succession planning meeting. How do you really know if Carol is ready now to become the head of the product team? What science did you use to determine that Bryan will be ready to lead sales in three to five years? How objective is your readiness time frame estimate? Did you consider how long Bryan has been at the same readiness time frame? Often, successors appear on a succession plan year after year with the same readiness time frame as in prior years. Or worse, successors appear and disappear from a specific succession plan based on recency bias.
More organizations are focused on the diversity of their leadership pipeline; however, developing succession plans that support diversity can be even more challenging if organizations are not proactively preparing successors to lead within the desired time frame.
More than anything, organizations want new leaders to succeed in bigger, more challenging roles as soon as possible, but the risk of failure is real. If organizations promote successors before they have the skill, will and leadership capabilities to take on a new role, it is highly likely that the successor will crash and burn, which may directly impact business results. When organizations are risk-averse, the fear of failure will often result in hiring experienced external talent even though a well-defined succession plan is in place.
When organizations are unsure of a successor’s readiness, they should test instead of guess.
By testing the readiness of future leaders, you simultaneously develop them by gradually presenting challenges that mimic their future role(s). Below are few considerations when designing a readiness test approach?
• Apply an internal ‘gig’ strategy. Match your key successors to challenging strategic projects that specifically address their development gaps or areas where risk of failure is the highest. For example, when I interviewed general managers (GMs) to inquire what it takes to be a GM, most of them indicated that commercial acumen, emotional intelligence and experience leading cross-functional teams was key. Therefore, a successor to a GM who lacked direct sales experience could be assigned a project to gather customer insights and build the business case and plan to launch a new line of business.
• Leverage internal and external experts. Borrowing internal and external leaders/experts who can aggressively teach up-and-coming leaders the ropes is an effective way to improve successor readiness. For example, many organizations are focusing on digital marketing; however, if your organization’s current marketing team is long-tenured and does not have digital marketing capabilities, consider hiring a digital marketing expert on short-term contract to cocreate a new digital marketing strategy and upskill the team on effective digital marketing best practices.
• Use technology and talent analytics to track progress. With the emergence of AI-powered internal talent marketplace technology, organizations can easily define and match employees to short-term development gigs or opportunities. By leveraging technology to define, match and track project completion, you will speed the logistics of managing internal gigs. Also, it is critical to leverage talent analytics to truly understand the state of your succession pool. Your succession dashboards should provide actionable insights about the diversity of your succession pool, changes in readiness (e.g., how long has this successor been at said readiness?) and the success rate of succession targets (e.g., what percent of key successors are actually promoted to the desired role, and what percent are successful once promoted?).
Ensuring your leadership pipeline is ready for the future is both an art and a science that is critical to a successful enterprise. By testing your future leaders, you can be sure they will be ready for what lies ahead.
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VP, Talent Management at LexisNexis Risk Solutions. I research, write and obsess about Leadership Development, Learning and Transformation. Read Takiyah Gross-Foote’s full executive profile here.