Thursday, September 11, 2014

To name, or not to name, that is the question...

"Do you think that I should have announced my successor?", asked the Senior HR professional. This was my third 'encounter' with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ' & 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment '  for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). "Well, it depends on what you were trying to achieve", I replied in a 'consultant-like' manner. Similar to what had happened during my previous encounters with him, this interaction also prompted me to think a bit more deeply about the underlying issues.
In this particular case, the situation was something like this: This gentleman had created a structure in which many of his direct reports were at the same level – handling roles of similar size. This ensured that all of them could hope for moving into his role and hence contributed to their engagement & retention. However, this also ensured that when this gentleman moved on to another role, none of his direct reports were ready to takeover from him & hence his role had to be filled with an external candidate. With their illusions broken (and considering the fact that the situation could repeat a few years later), many of the direct reports started looking for jobs outside the company.

Now, there are multiple levels of issues here. The most basic one is the need for succession planning. There should not be too much controversy here, as most of us are likely to agree that succession planning (especially for critical roles) is a worthwhile endeavor (Whether the Head of HR role qualifies as a ‘critical role’ is an interesting issue – but that is another story/blog post!). The second one is the need for a structured approach to develop people who are in the succession plan so that they become ready for the role within a specified time-frame. Here also there should not be much disagreement when it comes to the validity of the need, though the implementation is easier said than done, as it involves quite a bit of investment/focus to ensure that the requisite capability building takes place within the timelines.  

Things get more complicated when we think about whether or not to tell the people who are in the succession plan that they are part of the succession plan. The problem here is that doing this can create high expectations (and even some sort of ‘entitlement mentality’) among the people in the succession plan and also create disengagement (or even attrition) among people who are not in the succession plan. The latter becomes a significant problem if they are very valuable contributors in their current roles, though they did not make it to the succession plan for the next level role. However, not informing those in the succession plan might defeat the very purpose of succession planning.
The purpose of including an employee in the succession plan for a position is to enable him to develop readiness for the position within an accelerated time-frame. It would work much better if the employee is aware of the purpose for which the development is being undertaken. It definitely helps to tell an employee that he is part of a succession plan, so long as the communication is done in the right manner. This would also avoid the risk of developing an employee towards a position that he is not interested in. Again, this would prevent the unfortunate scenario in which such an employee leaves the organization because he thought that he was not being developed for the next level role! 

However, the communication has to be done in the right manner. The communication should mention that the company sees the potential in him to develop towards the particular position and that the company will provide accelerated learning opportunities to enable him to develop readiness for the same. It has to be made clear that no promise is being made that the employee will be moved to the target position within a specified period of time. It should also be mentioned that there could be multiple people in the succession plan for the position and that the actual move to the position will depend on business requirement, vacancy and his relative readiness as compared to other possible candidates for the position. Stretch and discomfort are inherent in accelerated development. If an employee is aware of and is committed to the purpose behind the development, he will be able in a better position to derive meaning from the stretch experience, to learn faster and even to enjoy the ride!
Let us come back to our Senior HR professional. There are no easy answers to his question. However, let me hazard a guess based on our discussion so far. It  would have been better if he had done the succession planning for his role and told the people in the succession plan that they were being developed for his role. Of course, this would require that the identification of people for the succession plan was done in manner that was rigorous and fair (and also seen to fair!). For example, all his direct reports (at least those who were interested in developing towards  his role) could have been put through a well-designed Assessment Centre (see 'Assessment Centres and Leaps of faith' for details). 
Now, let’s look at the matter of deciding the ideal number of people in the succession plan for a particular position. Announcing only one successor (like the senior HR professional was mentioning) would have been a very risky option. It would have made the organization dependent on only one person and/or it could have made the person in the succession plan a bit complacent. Putting too many people in the succession plan also would have been sub-optimal. It would have made the investment required for developing all these people too high and also reduced the chance for any particular individual to succeed in moving to the target role. Hence the best option would have been to identify  a few (say, 2-3) people who were relatively more ready at that point (say, based on the Assessment Centre results) to be on the succession plan and to tell them they were being developed for his role. This would also allow the others direct reports to either make peace with this situation (as a fair process has been followed to identify the people in the succession plan) or to exit the organization gracefully - at a time of their choice (without any hurry and possibly with a very good offer). Yes, this is not a perfect solution. But, it seems to be the best solution available!.
Do you agree?