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History of the concept of succession management

The below summarises changes in thinking about succession planning since the 1970s. It is based on research largely within the corporate sector.

1970s: Replacement planning

Focus on - The very top roles - job-specific requirements

Based on individuals’… -  Experience and technical expertise

Timescale of planning - Now

Role of future leaders - To provide smooth continuity

Identified via… -  Judgment of CEO - 'heir apparent'

What happens after assessment -  Wait

Transparency - Secret

1980s: Succession planning

Focus on - Range of leadership roles for organisational goals

Based on individuals’… -  Experience and competencies

Timescale of planning - 6-12 months ahead

Role of future leaders - Strategic planning

Identified via… -  Assessment by top team

What happens after assessment -  Leadership development course

Transparency - Secret

1990s - 2000s: Succession management

Focus on - Pools for strong leadership teams

Based on individuals’… -  Competencies that define potential for top leadership

Timescale of planning - 5-10 years ahead

Role of future leaders - Responding to and leading change

Identified via… -  Assessment by line manager, peers, top team

What happens after assessment -  Tailored development including job moves

Transparency - Agreed template of competencies; feedback to individuals

Of course, the sector's accumulated knowledge on succession is always increasing and moving forward. To show how thinking in this area has progressed even in the last few years, we have reproduced what the Leadership Foundation itself said about succession in 2005. As a historical document it may make an interesting comparison with the content of these pages.

What we said in 2005

What is succession management?

A system that addresses capability gaps in critical roles by implementing and maintaining processes that identify, develop, deploy and retain quality people. Succession management optimises the fit between the strategy of the institution and the abilities of its people. When world-class it is about treating talent as a pipeline, not a tap.

Why is it critical to the performance of HEIs?

The challenges facing HEIs are becoming bigger and more complex and require a continuous pipeline of leaders who can bring about the changes needed for sustained performance. Ask yourself:

  • Has your institution experienced a long-term vacancy in a key leadership position in the last year?
  • Have you had to compromise on quality to fill certain positions?
  • What percentage of your leaders would be selected if they were applying today for their current positions?
  • Would your current leaders say they felt adequately prepared for their senior role when they took it on?

How would I know if our HEI has a problem?

‘Bench strength’ is a term used to measure the difference between the number of critical leadership roles in your institution and the number of employees who demonstrate the required level of performance for these roles. Good practice suggests that you should have at least two ‘ready now’ candidates for every critical role. Unfortunately the demand for leadership talent far outstrips the supply.

But why can’t I just buy the talent I need?

There is talent out there and competent organisations are adept at hiring and firing good people. Great organisations however are skilled at developing and deploying talent in ways that continuously grow their experience, stretch their abilities and enable their achievements. Promoting people from within is good for morale and essential to a positive institutional culture. And a grow-your-own strategy is also much less expensive than a policy of searching for the best external candidates. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that failure rates for newly recruited senior managers can be as high as 50%.

Isn’t succession management a waste of time and resource – surely the best talent will rise to the top on its own?

Without a systematic approach to identifying and developing future senior managers many talented people will leave the institution or fail to develop the breadth of capabilities needed for them to fulfil their potential. Succession management is a quality and a quantity issue.

So how do we do succession management well?

Put simply there are three things that you have to do:

  • Decode your strategy and define the capabilities that will predict sustained future success. Don’t rely on outdated competency models that may be out of kilter with the strategy or changes in the marketplace. Know which succession / talent issues are the really important ones;
  • Evaluate your people against the capabilities as rigorously as you can;
  • Enhance your talent to deliver your strategy.

Who is responsible for succession management?

Ensuring the institution has the capability it needs to deliver its strategy is the responsibility of the vice-chancellor and SMT. Senior leaders make succession management and leadership development a top priority and pay attention to it. They don’t just advocate it; they literally roll up their sleeves and personally take an active role in identifying and developing talent.

What is the role of HR?

HR’s role is to facilitate the succession management process, developing aligned frameworks and simple tools that enable the identification, selection and development of the institution’s high-potential people. A key role is to provide information that will enable rigorous decisions to be made about talent.

What are the different approaches to succession management?

Organisations with effective succession management have moved away from traditional ‘replacement planning’ systems and use an approach called the ‘talent pool’. The talent pool develops a group of high-potential individuals for senior management roles in general.

How does a talent pool work?

A talent pool is a group of high-potential people who have been identified for senior roles in general. Pool members have access to special development opportunities and their progress is tracked by the senior management team with the help of HR.

Should we have one talent pool or many?

The existence of a talent pool is determined by its connection with strategic success. The institution will need to decide which roles are critical in terms of their contribution to sustainable performance. Ask of each role or group: “What do these employees do that makes the biggest difference to our institution?”

What is the focus for the development of people in the talent pool?

To be viewed as high-potential, individuals should already be performing exceptionally in their current role. Therefore development should focus on the capabilities needed in future roles. Otherwise promoted leaders will continue to deliver through those attributes that made them successful in the past and this can lead to underperformance or in some cases derailment.