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Succession management - Making the case

You may be starting from a position where everyone agrees that work on succession or talent is needed, and your job is to establish views on the detail. Or you may have to make a business case from scratch. Either way, knowing your stakeholders is crucial to success – and it is difficult, and sometimes enormously frustrating, so worth paying attention to.

As with most organisational change initiatives, successfully making the case for change seems to depend on the combination of:

  • a senior manager with energy and focus who can convince others of the importance of succession planning;
  • a highly competent professional with substantial experience who can be trusted to operate the scheme fairly.

At Newcastle University, this team consisted of a pro-vice-chancellor and the then head of learning and development, who took a move sideways into the succession manager role. At Imperial College London, the chief operating officer wanted to see a talent management scheme in place and again the head of learning and development moved sideways into the role of talent manager. At Nottingham Trent University, the senior manager was the director of organisational development and business improvement, who convinced the VC and senior management team colleagues to write succession into the university’s strategic plan, and secured a budget to appoint a succession manager with significant experience outside the sector.

At all three organisations significant time went into talking through the plans with senior managers. The succession manager at Nottingham Trent went to most meetings of the senior management team for several months, testing assumptions and translating the words of the strategic plan into actions, and seeking clarity, alignment and commitment. He also spent time with each member of the SMT individually outside the meeting, understanding their particular priorities and frame of reference. He remembers that “not everyone was aligned all the time, but it was enough so that it wasn’t down to me to defend the proposals if someone criticised.”

Newcastle already had good development processes in place such as appraisal, but the pro-vice-chancellor for the humanities could see that it was not clear where the next heads of certain key departments were coming from. Discussions with the then head of learning and development led to the idea of establishing development centres, and with the opportunity of a Leadership Foundation fellowship presenting itself, a successful bid for the fellowship and its associated £40k funding was made. This enabled a pilot to be run with volunteer participants in the humanities faculty as well as invited observer/assessors from other faculties, so as to involve the whole university in the pilot and pave the way for a cross-university approach following the success of the pilot.

What if there isn’t a champion in the senior management team? This does make setting up a succession project much harder – but you can still make some progress by piloting a scheme in a part of the university where there is energy for it.