Succession Planning (in Turbulent Times …)

Succession planning, talent reviews, talent pipelining … these are regular routines within most organisations which vary in quality, approach, and outcomes. They are often related to a ‘standardised’ set of metrics such as churn, distribution curves, engagement surveys, success in promotion and selection decisions etc, and influenced by organisational strategy. Yet, even in normal times the methodologies deployed can produce results that at best are sometimes questionable and at worst pure “gut feel”. Best practice examples confirm that using data-driven insights, aligning around what ‘good’ looks like and ensuring that operational managers have total accountability and responsibility for the process produce the best outcomes.

Although in normal times, the robustness of any succession planning leaves a bit to be desired, the risks are often mitigated by a good availability of external talent and the fact that there is often time and/or money to rectify any poor decisions. However, post-pandemic, we are not in normal times. Chaos and uncertainty are the only rules in play, and any succession plans sitting in a file will have limited meaning and value. As we come out of lockdown and economic activity increases and growth returns, all the signs are clear that we will enter a new “war for talent” where the only winners will be those who act quickly and decisively.

Over the last 18 months, attributes such as agility, resilience, emotional intelligence, creativity, drive etc have been confirmed as drivers of individual and organisational success. They were always important but are now critical to any leadership role and culture – it is not an overstatement to say that without them, the only outcome will be failure.

As new roles are created and existing roles become vacant the pressure on those remaining to be flexible and adaptable rapidly grows, so the outcome of any talent review before Jan 2021 becomes questionable. We have learnt a lot, and often been surprised by those amongst our workforce who stepped up and outperformed all previous expectations. On the converse we have also experienced disappointment as those we thought were real talents struggled to deliver. What is totally clear now is that what made you successful yesterday will not be a guarantee of success tomorrow.

So, what, if anything, can be done? Context is everything and although we cannot predict the future – or even the near future – the attributes identified above will be vital to success. To help you navigate what may lie ahead, here are six more steps you can take to mitigate risk in uncertain times.

  • Step 1: Define what good looks in the context of tomorrow. Ask yourself, “What attributes/qualities do I need to help me succeed going forward? What is my Success Profile?”
  • Step 2: Urgently evaluate and review your critical roles and see what coverage you have. Be honest, use assessment data and evidence mapped to what ‘good likes like’. And remember, anything less than two successors is high risk.
  • Step 3: Map across your organisation the output of step two and take an holistic view: what themes and patterns are emerging? what is the data telling you? what are the critical highlights and where are the risks?
  • Step 4: Map the external market for where you have talent gaps. You may not need this insight immediately but building a warm pipeline of engaged talent will stand you in good stead for when you do …
  • Step 5: Build strong engagement with your internal talent pipeline at an individual level. If you have identified them as such, others will have too so be paranoid. They are your only certainty so value them and remember that with this profile money is not the major driver of engagement.
  • Step 6: Review the outcomes monthly. Only by doing this regularly will you ensure you have the people and actions in place to manage the chaos and uncertainty and mitigate the risk. Regularly review your context and adapt what ‘good looks like’ to ensure it reflects your latest thinking on tomorrow.

Any great leader has always personally recognised the importance of talent and what it means to match it to the organisational strategy. Sadly many leaders consider it to be an HR process and ultimately suffer the consequences, often unseen.

But in our new world, leaving succession planning to chance or others will only lead to failure – by which time it will be too late. Those leaders, from the Board downwards who grab this and take personal ownership will be the ones who have the people in the right place, with the right balance of skills and attributes to navigate the disruption and as we evolve out of this period will be best placed to grow and succeed.

For more information on this topic or to discuss the challenges of running a people-centric organisation, please contact Nick Behan (