#PunkHR – succession planning – another HR alchemical intervention?

Posted: August 7, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Or is it a vital aspect of ANY forward looking movement?

I recently had an email exchange with the future of HR. That’s Chloe Green to her friends and family. She is the future CEO of the CIPD to me. (@ChloeGreen28 on Twitter)

Anyway, the exchange was about Succession Plans. And I came up with this definition for what Succession Plans are there for. I said they should “Deliver a future-proofed organisation by covering key roles/skills that are known to be essential to the business together with people’s aspirations and abilities to move into those roles. More importantly in modern times, succession plans have to increasingly build on people’s skills for roles that may not even exist at the time the plan was created. Key skills like digital competence; agility; networking; story-telling and transitioning will help people adapt to new roles and help the business cover key areas to keep their business driving forward.”

But there’s something wrong and succession plans don’t work. I’ve attended a few seminars recently with MPs; HRDs and Business Leaders. They all say people issues are as taxing and dis-enabling to growth as finance issues. Some of it is skills shortages, some of it is just not finding the right people in the first place. My view is that a succession plan means these are risks that you can mitigate against having. But they don’t work. They’re not Punk enough. OK not all the issues with people are down to succession plans, but if the people plans (which included succession elements) were effective those people I heard wouldn’t be able to give that as a big issue.

So what’s wrong with succession plans you ask? Why pick on them? Why do we need to get all PunkHR about them?

One reason is from my experience (and I was once guilty of this also) HR seems a little too keen to get a hold of succession planning when the reality of it is, good leadership is about the creation of more people who can give their best and lead. That’s a succession plan.

It isn’t HR’s fault though that there’s a keenness to grab hold of succession planning and own it. Here’s why I think HR have pushed, grabbed and owned succession planning and then maybe how we can let it go again and put it back where it belongs – with managers working with, and supported by, HR.

Here’s my reasoning why HR has too much keenness about succession plans.

(A) The business doesn’t think about it enough.

Sweating their human assets is often the sign of a managed, high-achieving organisation. Something Fons Trompenaars calls a “guided missile”. One that may well implode when people get fed up of being a commodity. Some managers and businesses move from recruitment to recruitment replacing people and covering skills gaps when in reality, if they took a developmental approach; a longer term vision and anticipated churn, they’d create overlap; stretch for people and generally make sure key skills are in abundance and roles can be covered.

Why doesn’t the business think about it enough? Maybe because no-one reports on “have you created overlap?” no they report on “Have you hit that deadline and / or dealt with 200 calls”. It’s not that valued or measured. Until people leave that is.

(B) Managers don’t do it well enough.

Even if a business knows how valuable future-proofing is, some managers are so poorly equipped or so inadequately adept that it never takes shape. How on earth can any manager talk themselves out of something as exciting, energising and important as skilling people up to do more; be more versatile and simultaneously be stimulated by learning something new? I know they’re busy bless them, and I know some people have been promoted to lead when that wasn’t really their niche, but it’s time managers realised that a fundamental element of their role is to build people’s capability and create more capacity in the event of people no longer being there.

Now more than ever what’s in peoples’ heads is often the most valuable asset a company has no control over. That’s not just knowledge in there either…it’s acquired skills, cultural architecture, relationship facets and general deployable know-how. Yet managers are happy to leave it all in their peoples’ heads and not share that across the teams.

(C) People hoard and protect.

Many of us view our knowledge, skills or niche qualities as something to protect and therefore preserve our employment status. We start from a point of “if I share what I know too much, others will usurp me or make me irrelevant”. It’s not entirely the case but clearly some role-based paranoia can cause people to not want to develop others. We reward people for the performance they put in (of sorts) and this, IMHO, causes people to want to protect what they know to give them a competitive performance edge.

(D) Short-termism rules.

We must have all seen those people who fly in, create loads of initiatives, get some going and then off the back of that “success” move on elsewhere. I call these people Triumph Trolls. They play on a couple of quickish triumphs but are really troll-like in that they leave a nasty trail of destruction behind. They’re then gone before this is all brought to account. These are the sorts of people who surround themselves with diligent, effective, driven people who deliver but then when they leave they drop them like a hot stone and leave them to pick up the rubbish left behind. With managers like this is it any wonder they don’t have succession plans? To a Triumph Troll, succession and legacy is the last thing on their mind. Quick wins are all that counts to a Triumph Troll.

(E) Transience is seen as a desirable trait.

Yes folks, the regular mover is seen as a success architect. They assimilate rapidly, they generate momentum quickly so why would they stick around? Simple, they should hang on a bit as legacy should be part of their package. Sure use of Interims has increased as has fixed-term contracts, but there’s no excuse to leave something not just improved, but sustainable, behind you. Unfortunately, quick-burst fixers are in demand. Largely to fix the messes of either a disillusioned predecessor or another journey-man fixer who left their own mess behind. We almost need the recruitment/selection version of Watchdog who expose these situational bounty hunters. Too regular a mover, worrying propensity to press “eject” before they are ejected; too infrequent a mover, not as skilled or experienced enough perhaps. And since when did loyalty disappear? OK the commoditisation of people is bound to erode some of the loyalty (and the CIPD’s thought provoking “Where has all the TRUST gone?” gives answers to some of this) but is it really a case of zero loyalty now? Surely there’s a balance to this from both employers with packages and approaches that invoke loyalty yet don’t create a gentile country club; mixed with employees who care enough about their craft to be loyal to the place that pays them and keeps them safe in return for use of that craft? Loyalty is probably a blog of its own so I might do something on Punk loyalty.

Anyway, succession plans may be construed as some desperate attempt to create some locked-in loyalty and I’ve seen myself how a talent programme can create that – and build up people to leave, so it’s imperfect in that respect too.

So what are my answers or suggestions you are thinking?

I have some, but this is a bigger issue than this blog and seeps into David McLeod and Nita Clarke’s task force on engagement; the Gen X, Y, Millennials thing; economic crises borne out of irresponsible financing and the rise of new commercial/knowledge powers like India and Brazil. Yes, this issue of loyalty, succession and performance is a geo-socio one. I might invite @FlipchartRick to get on this…

My thoughts though are this:

(1) HR shouldn’t be too quick to own succession plans. To resist this, HR should get under the skin of the Employee Survey findings or Union dialogue – and answer this question “What keeps the best people here, doing their best?” and keep asking the question. Things change so rapidly, you cannot ask this yearly. Quarterly maybe? Be a Punk and pick up the street vibe not the glossy chart sounds.

(2) HR should become the confidante for people looking to leave. Don’t conduct exit interviews, it’s too late by then. Hold a truly confidential counsel with people with the movement itch. Find out what’s tempting and calling to them and act on this before they leave. Let the rebels rebel with you.

(3) HR should be belligerent in ensuring managers take seriously, are capable in, and execute on, succession plans. Introduce some new reward which incentivises the creation of future-proofed people and functions. Not pogoing at a Punk gig is not an option.

(4) HR should be the organisational wide arbitrator for transience across the business. To avoid resource hoarding and again, incentivise people, to give up their best for something better/stimulating but in the same organisation. Share stages and guest musicians to ensure freshness and creativity.

(5) Once succession plans are owned and executed on by the business, HR should stretch them through brokered partnerships with other organisations. This way talent can temporarily exit to learn and improve. I call this bungy development – daring, brave but on elastic so it never severs the organisational ties. It’s a secondment if you will but that sounds too dull to be PunkHR.

(6) HR should get into more effective and impactful measurement of the value created by succession plans. And not just hiring costs. All the culture, knowledge, relationships, innovative thinking, discretionary effort, buzz, that stuff. That refers back to my press blog about the value agenda. Be a real disruptive Punk about what you measure and how you measure it.

(7) HR should adopt the role of “dignified loss adjusters”. Succession Plans will reveal people who have failed to keep up, have gotten stuck, didn’t belong in the first place and need to move on. Not dead wood, but not healthy new shoots either. HR should help these people find a new place to be their best, and create space for healthy new shoots to come on through. Again, we spend so much time in capability, sick absence reviews when in reality it’s probably because the pieces just don’t fit anymore for them or their organisation. When someone wants to be MOR, fund them a safe space for easy listening to let the new Punk rebels to come through.

So that to me is Succession Planning. Not owned and delivered by HR per se. More strategically invoked and supported by HR.

Punk rock didn’t have a succession plan but the spirit lives on and the vibe just keeps on rolling. If we – particularly in HR – don’t get this right the workplace could be, well, Pretty Vacant eh?

  1. Meg Peppin says:

    Lots and lots to ponder on here.
    Number 4 should be the law. I fought the law but the law won.

    It starts at the beginning, at selection and recruitment; I think HR’s role here could be facilitating the recruitment via providing the managers with the skills and know how to undertake their own recruitment. Gonna blog about this, but I think it fits into rethinking the whole succession.

    • perrytimms says:

      Thanks Meg…let’s start the movement that sparks a new groove in succession. Can’t wait to see your blog now. Appreciate the look and comment here. Number 4 becomes the law…there’s a lyric there already, thank you.

  2. Cracking post Perry and I agree with most of it (and it’s too late to be specific) but I think the central tenant of your argument is the fundamental shift that some organisations have made and others are resisting – HR do not lead organisations, Leaders do.

    The sooner HR wakes up to the fact that it is there to maximise the effectiveness of the organisation not to run it for them then all of the challenges you allude to will be different.

    As for bungy development (love the term) I think that can only come when an organisation faces it’s long term potential (not the short termism driven by LTIPs and share prices) and realises that it can grow people or lose people will this sort of ‘swap’ be possible. It’s about businesses collaborating for mutual benefit without losing commercial competition and everyone realising that a win-win solution is much better than school yard scraps over the numpty stuff.

    Now to finish – have you identified a successor and who would cover your role were you to go under a bus??

    • perrytimms says:

      Cracking reply as ever Rob – love the way you lay out your thoughts. My succession you rightly ask is safe, spread bet-like in the heart and hands of 4 fabulous people from my team. Why 4? Well I’ve not cloned me; but these 4 people have all the components to lead collectively; build on what I’ve set out and make it better; and gain from the experience to create their own legacy and succession. I’m not rushing out of the door but I remain convinced that it is my duty to future proof everything I have professional responsibility for. I’ve started the process, realise it might make myself irrelevant but will do so with grace and an inner glow that I can only explain as the right thing to do and an impact that exceeds anything I could do myself. Thanks for the chance to describe my approach to this and again, your comments. Now about that beer…

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