Building Bench Skills vs. Traditional Succession Planning

Traditional succession planning is often a waste of time. Let’s face it, “plans” themselves, although filled with good intention, often fail to create change in an organization. The idea of “planning” focuses on a process rather than a specific goal or outcome. Most company leaders that I know are so busy with the day-to-day issues of running their business that the idea of spending time thinking through a “process” often takes a backseat to critical items like customer complaints, new product development, making financial decisions, addressing employee requirements and more. Perhaps we need to think about succession planning more as a way to develop bench skills in executives with great promise. In other words, as a first step, we need to ask ourselves the question; “how do we help key leaders in the organization build the skills needed to step into critical future roles?” If we think about succession in this way there is a greater chance that these plans will be executed.

Building Bench Skills vs. Traditional Succession Planning

Traditional succession planning is often a waste of time. Let’s face it, “plans” themselves, although filled with good intention, often fail to create change in an organization. The idea of “planning” focuses on a process rather than a specific goal or outcome. Most company leaders that I know are so busy with the day-to-day issues of running their business that the idea of spending time thinking through a “process” often takes a backseat to critical items like customer complaints, new product development, making financial decisions, addressing employee requirements and more. Perhaps we need to think about succession planning more as a way to develop bench skills in executives with great promise. In other words, as a first step, we need to ask ourselves the question; “how do we help key leaders in the organization build the skills needed to step into critical future roles?” If we think about succession in this way there is a greater chance that these plans will be executed.

The next step is to find a way to measure the execution of these “people development” outcomes in the same way we measure sales, profit, employee retention, cash flow and ROI. These are very practical outcomes that are far more tangible. This requires that we clearly define the “skill gap” for every leader. This needs to be a function of each leaders self-evaluation as well as the evaluation of their immediate report. For example, the VP of Sales and Marketing may want to work with the Director of Sales to assist her in clearly defining her “personal development outcomes.” I am not talking about the outcomes such as revenue creation or unit sales production or percentage growth of a particular client segment but rather her personal soft-skill capabilities. That is her competency level in performing more effectively as a leader in dealing with the people issues required in the role of VP of Sales and Marketing. This might be her ability to recruit more effectively, create harmony in her department or to make better decisions or even to speak in a more professional or inspiring way. These very quantifiable capabilities are bench skills which will allow this Director of Sales to become a more viable candidate for a future VP position. Frankly we tend to overlook these kind of outcomes and certainly few organizations have metrics in place to evaluate them. We simply hope that emerging leaders will develop these people skills by mere osmosis! Without this kind of deliberate focus on these “developmental skills” how could this director ever move to the VP position?

In addition, in order to move from the Director of Sales position to the VP of Sales and Marketing, this director will need to work on developing some of the hard-skills required. For example when she moves from leading the sales group to that of also leading the marketing group, she will need to have an understanding and sensitivity of the marketing elements of the business. Where will she get this from? How will she be able to effectively lead this department if she has had only a minimal or cursory interface with this group? This creates the practical cross training need for this director to embrace some marketing projects while still in her role as Director of Sales. This might be the assignment of a simple marketing project or the integration in her current role with some elements of the marketing department. This is a deliberate attempt to build some hard skills in this area. This will not only help her to understand some of the functions of the marketing group this will also assist her in winning support from the people in this department when she does make the move up the hierarchy. It will also assist in building some of the relationships that are needed for the role change to take place. Again few organizations actually go to the extent of deliberately orchestrating this. In some cases this happens by accident but it is a messy affair often accompanied by confusion, resentment and frustration for everyone involved. Again more often than not this type of predetermined strategy is rarely put in place in a deliberate way.

In short taking a thoughtful approach to creating these kind of bench skills and outcomes is a far more effective way to create succession. So put aside the traditional succession planning map and look at your team now and their roles for the future. Where are the soft-skill gaps? Where are the hard-skill gaps? What kind of personal development should they be engaged in today to prepare them for the next step in career growth? How can you create some very tangible and measurable outcomes for these leaders? Where do they and the rest of your leadership team see these people fitting into the organization in the next 3, 5 or 10 years?

If you can answer these questions you are well on your way to creating a succession strategy that will reap rewards well into the future.

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