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Succession Insecurity

It has been my observation and experience, in working with and talking to many HR Pros over the years, that one of the most frustrating organizational undertakings has to be succession management.  The level and type of succession management activity that does occur in most companies fits somewhere along the spectrum of:

1) What is succession management? I have heard of it and it sounds nice…..

2) I know what it is, but I just can’t get it implemented in my organization due to lack of focus, funding, etc.

3) Our organizational leaders know it is important but just don’t deem it to be a priority right now

4) Our leadership team thinks that it is simply a matter of tapping someone on the shoulder when the time comes so we don’t need to formalize anything

5) We have a robust talent management program that provides for focused succession discussions on an ongoing basis.  Leaders are tapped with, and accountable for, identifying and developing top talent in our organization.

imageThis post is for anyone who feel #’s 1-4 apply to them.  For those of you that slot in at #5, you should be blogging about the subject and charging others to listen to you on the rubber chicken circuit!  Seriously though, I think that if you selected #1, this post may not even be for you either, but I encourage you to read on, just in case!  So, regardless of where you are on the spectrum (#5 not withstanding) and where you stand with your efforts and successes in trying to formalize your succession efforts, I do believe that the root cause of your struggles may come down to one thing.  At the heart of things is the simple fact that your organizational leaders may be very insecure.  For those leaders that resist any type of effort to identify and develop successors, it usually comes down to insecurity.  When you think about it, it is (somewhat) understandable. We are essentially saying to them, “hey, you need to do a good job as a leader, but in case you don’t, or if you decide to move on to something better, we don’t want to be caught flat-footed, so you need to make sure you have a replacement identified for us.”  Yes, I know that isn’t exactly how we say it, or even what HR Pros are trying to accomplish; however, that is what your organizational leaders hear.

This insecurity is what stalls a lot of succession management efforts for HR Pros in organizations.  Leaders don’t want to think that they can be replaced.  They often don’t even want to think that at some point they won’t even be in in their own role as a leader anymore.  The further up the food chain the leader is, the more intertwined their personal identify is with their job.  That is, 100% of their “self” corresponds with their role as a CEO, etc.  In essence, if they are not the CEO of Acme Industries, they can’t picture what else they would be  (or be doing) – they are essentially professionally ‘lost.’

For the reason mentioned above, I think that is why many of the problems with leadership teams also stem from this insecurity issue.  Along with the fact that they don’t want to think about being replaced by formally grooming their successor, their insecurity has also manifested itself into the selection of their management teams.  Far too many CEO’s, President’s, VP’s, etc. tend to pick management teams that they  feel are not a threat to them.  In other words, they surround themselves with “yes” people who will tow the company line, not make waves and not aspire to be anything more.  This way, the organizational leader never feels threatened and when the CHRO comes a knockin’ to discuss succession management, the CEO’s response is, “well, we are a long way away from that….I don’t have anybody in the current ranks that is remotely close to being ready.”  Boom – there it is, the perfect cop out!

So, how do we combat this “succession insecurity”? Well, the bad news, as I alluded to before, is that there is no secret sauce.  The good news is that there are some ways ahead.  The first thing you need to stop doing is labelling your efforts as succession management.  It needs to be all about talent development.  Position it with your organizational leaders that way.  For starters, it sounds sexier.  Secondly, it is all about making the people across the organization more valuable.  You need to talk about how the company needs to broaden skill sets for growth by getting  leaders involved in different areas of the organization.  Drive the talent development down a level or two – focus on the CEO’s direct reports and their direct reports.  Focus on the need to ensure departmental continuity and organizational talent retention. (more sexy words).

Better yet, work with your CEO on the fact that he/she doesn’t want their workload to double/triple if key people leave or that they don’t want their legacy to be that they they were the one responsible for ACME’s share price dropping by 90% after key executives left and no one was capable of picking up the mantle afterwards.  Bottom line – you have to make it about them and their legacy, after all, it is insecurity that is causing your current efforts to fail, so leverage the ego to make them work!

What about you?  How have you managed to get buy-in and participation in your succession management (I mean talent development) efforts?  Do you think the root cause of the problems in leadership insecurity?  As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Image courtesy of  ddpavumba/FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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