• Apr 24 2024

Demystifying Successor Development: Strategies for HR and Talent professionals

 Developing successors for your organization’s most high-impact roles is a complex task. It requires understanding your organization’s short and long term goals, and the critical capabilities that are required to carry the organization forward into an unpredictable future. 

Many organizations fail to properly plan for succession, let alone prepare leaders to succeed in the highest level of organizational leadership. In fact, two thirds of top executives report feeling underprepared for the job, and more than 50% of executives fail within their first 18 months.

HR and Talent leaders play a critical role ensuring the successor selection and development process is effective and yields capable, diverse candidates ready to step seamlessly into leadership roles. Based on more than a decade of experience developing successors, we’re sharing our top strategies. 

Engage key stakeholders early

Developing successors is not just the realm of HR, Talent, and Learning leaders. It requires active participation and oversight from your organization’s top leadership, including the board of directors.

This group of senior leaders are responsible for defining and aligning around your organization’s current and future priorities and challenges. This process will help leaders charged with succession planning understand how each role impacts organizational strategy, and what capabilities are needed most to succeed in that role. 

Make sure you identify the key stakeholders who will play active or supervisory roles in the succession planning process before you start planning to avoid misalignment as you move forward. 

Examine and re-envision critical roles in need of succession

When identifying the critical capabilities successors will need to develop, don’t take for granted that those capabilities will be exactly the same as the ones possessed by current leadership. As the business environment changes, so must your organization and its top leaders. The scope and skill sets associated with each senior-level executive are bound to evolve over time. 

Work with senior leaders to identify current organizational challenges, and forecast the challenges the organization is likely to face within the next five years. Envision how the scope of your organization’s top leadership will change to meet those challenges, and identify the capabilities they will need to succeed.

Nurture a ready pool of high-potential employees (HiPos)

Identifying employees across your organization with high potential for leadership lays the groundwork for developing capable executives. By implementing HiPo development programs, you help engage and retain a pool of talented employees as potential successors. 

You also help ensure that your company’s future leaders stay current with the relevant knowledge and skills they need to drive business impact, and to transition successfully into senior leadership roles. Maintaining leaders’ readiness for succession depends on offering HiPos the opportunity to develop their leadership knowledge and skill sets on a continuous basis. 

Don’t neglect your future leaders. Your company’s HiPo program should not be a “one-and-done” experience, rather an ongoing engagement that helps leaders stay ready to take on emerging challenges. 

Make successor development equitable

Diversity among a company’s top leaders is a business imperative. A group of leaders from different backgrounds, possessing different life experiences and perspectives is better able to recognize business opportunities and drive innovation to keep your organization competitive.

But too often, leaders are tapped for development opportunities and promotions because they look and act like existing leaders–not necessarily because they possess the right capabilities. This dynamic leads to entrenched biases based on factors like race, gender, educational background, and many other factors that are completely unrelated to an employee’s ability to lead at the highest level. 

To root out biases in successor selection, it is crucial to implement a rigorous and objective assessment process that includes both quantitative and qualitative input on an employee’s performance and aptitude for leadership. 

Your focus on equity should also extend to the development opportunities you offer potential successors. Every leader has different needs when it comes to learning and development; a program or experience that serves one leader, may not serve another. It is important to build flexibility into your program, offering a variety of learning formats and experiences to ensure every learner has the opportunity to grow and thrive. 

Make individualized learning easier (and more economical)

Potential successors require individualized development plans to ensure they have the capabilities they need to lead the organization; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing successors. 

Individual plans may consist of different variations of learning programs, applied projects, coaching, and networking experiences. For each program, you will have a variety of partner institutions and coaching agencies to choose from. With each leader needing a unique development plan, it’s easy to see how your list of partner vendors and coaches can become hard to manage. 

Measure development progress and outcomes

How will you know if potential successors are ready to lead? The truth is you won’t know for sure that a successor is truly prepared to succeed in senior leadership until they step into the role and start leading. However, your development plans for successors should have milestones and metrics baked in to help you monitor their progress. 

Set clear timelines for potential successors to engage with development activities. For example, you can set the expectation that a potential successor will meet with a leadership coach a certain number of times, or complete a certain number of courses, within a 3-, 6-, or 12-month time period. 

The assessment of potential successors that you completed in the selection process can serve as a baseline for measuring their development of critical capabilities through your development program. 

Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to determine a) what outcomes you expect leaders to achieve by completing the program, and b) how you will measure those outcomes. These metrics should tie back to your original assessment of the leader to help demonstrate to what extent they have developed toward succession readiness. 

There is no guarantee that the development plans you help create for potential successors will perfectly prepare them for the challenges ahead. However, by implementing the above strategies, you help create a durable culture of learning and development that helps not only senior leaders, but leaders at every level, succeed. 


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