Bench Strength Succession Planning
Written By Dick Massimilian
Published Spring 2021
Senior executives, and in particular HR executives, are concerned with having the people in place – now and into the future – to ensure their organization can achieve its strategic objectives. No organization wins in the marketplace without top talent. As a result, executives are putting greater emphasis on bench strength succession planning.
Bench Strength and Succession Planning Challenges
As the competition for great people intensifies for a variety of reasons, savvy executives are devoting increasing attention to the challenges of attracting, hiring, developing and retaining great people. This leads to two separate but interrelated challenges.
The first of these two challenges is bench strength. Do we have a robust list of people for every key role, in addition to the incumbent, who could assume that role immediately or on short notice? What happens if we need a sudden replacement? This is particularly true in industries such as High Tech, where people tend to change jobs relatively often.
The second challenge is succession planning. How do we plan for the orderly transition of key executive leadership roles, so that those transitions are seamless and smooth? How do we reassure our stakeholders and Board of Directors that we have taken appropriate steps to minimize succession risk?
These issues frequently fall on the Human Resources Executive, the person most often accountable for both bench strength and succession. How does he or she approach the dual challenges of having people in place while developing those people to assume roles of increasing responsibility in the future? How does he or she implement a bench strength succession planning process that has successors ready to assume critical roles at the appropriate time?
Luckily, there is significant overlap in what to do to address both bench strength and succession planning. Based on many discussions I’ve had with senior human resource leaders over the last decade, here is a list of what most do to ensure they maximize the return on investment in their people and have their talent be a source of competitive advantage.
Start a Succession Planning list
Though it may sound obvious, companies have often not taken the time to consolidate their information and create a 1–2-page Succession Planning list. A simple succession planning matrix needs only five columns: Position, Incumbent, Potential Successor(s), Timing and Notes. There is a tremendous benefit to having a one-page summary of key candidates, an “at-a-glance” compilation of the top talent. In large organizations, depending on how deep into the organization the formal succession plan reaches, the list is likely multiple pages. But it is ready and available at a moment’s notice should the CEO need to respond to a query from a Board member. Far better to have the summary list and not be asked for it, than to get a call from the CEO on a Thursday evening asking for such a list by tomorrow’s lunch with several directors.
Interview incumbents for their input on both bench strength and succession
Schedule time – preferably an hour or more – to meet in person with the current incumbent for each key role. The sole purpose of the meeting is to discuss bench strength and succession. Avoid tacking this conversation onto an existing meeting, as the tendency will be to rush through it. By its nature, this discussion needs to be unhurried and exploratory. Start with the obvious: who does he or she think is their likely successor(s) and why? Focus on the key strengths of the successor(s). Ask questions like:
- If you won the lottery and left the company, and we needed someone to move into your role tomorrow, could [name} do it?
- Who would you backfill [name]’s position with?
- Is there anyone in your division or even outside the company, in the industry, you have your eye on and would love to recruit?
Take your time. Tease out possibilities. Ask about people you know of personally. Don’t be reluctant to explore; this discussion is about possibilities.
Watch for a couple of red flags, such as “there’s no one,” the chief of these. If that’s the case, what’s the plan to get someone? If there’s no plan, that’s a problem. Another is the unwillingness to entertain alternatives to the incumbent’s chosen successor. The incumbent may be absolutely correct in his or her assessment of the best replacement. But that’s different from being willing to explore other possible candidates and the key competencies required to succeed in the role.
Interview peers for their input
Talk to peers of the incumbent and get their views about who might be a succession candidate. Often peers can provide surprising insight and identify candidates who might otherwise be overlooked. In one instance, a client of mine ultimately chose the successor to a senior sales executive from the ranks of the operations group. It was the first time such a cross-functional choice had been made in the company. The initial idea came from a peer interview like this, which brings us to the next tip:
Consider what competencies each position calls for that may be found in other areas of the company. Are there people who could make a lateral move, thereby increasing bench strength in a department in which it may be weak? Focus on highly talented, high potential, early-career talent. Great people are, by definition, versatile. You never know when a marketing manager may be open to a stint in operations. In other words, ask and you will likely be surprised.
In any discussion of bench strength succession planning, there is Ready Now. Then, there is ready in 1 – 2 years, 3 – 5 years, and even beyond five years. Make sure the very valid concern with having a successor for each role, now or in the near-term, does not drive an overly short-term focus on your part.
Convene meetings to discuss bench strength and management succession with your leadership team. Align on who your key succession candidates are. These meetings can be challenging, in large part because of the enormous preparation that goes into making such a meeting successful. Often there is voluminous data that must be organized into succinct, easily understood modules. Because of this, these meetings are notoriously challenging to facilitate. Opinions may vary and be strongly held. Discussions on individual roles tend to exceed the time allotted. Finally, near-term, operational issues can easily creep into the dialogue. A smart facilitator appoints a timekeeper, pays close attention to time and manages the agenda tightly. For more information on how to lead an effective meeting, consider purchasing my book on the topic.
It is essential to ensure that these talent review meetings are distinct from performance reviews or bonus discussions. The emphasis here is on potential, and while it’s fair to assume that the latter is a prerequisite for the former, the two are distinct. Often an individual is an outstanding performer in a given role but for whatever reason is not suited for a role of increasing responsibility. Conversely, someone new to a role may struggle initially but possess the competencies and attributes that make him or her an ideal candidate for a larger role.
Building bench strength and succession planning are key to the success of any organization of any size. To talk about how I can help you with both in your company, contact me. I look forward to it.
All the best,