The Best-laid Plans

Bringing Succession Plans to Life

John Coon

May 6, 2013

Developing talent will make employees care about building a company and it will make succession planning become a more natural and organic process. A safe employee is a more fully invested employee.

 “To have a great succession plan that’s authentic for our environment, our people need to know they’re safe,” Atkin says. “They need to know we’re not just trying to hire people that can replace them and we can cut down payroll, but that we’re trying to invest long-term in the business. It’s so cut-throat out there that people are insecure.”

Looking to the Future

Finding the right talent is only one part of the equation in putting a succession plan in action. The plan must also be focused on how a leadership transition will affect a company’s long-term future.

A succession plan can be useful in identifying skill gaps and filling pending vacancies at key leadership positions. It allows a leadership team to create a pool of candidates for leadership roles and forecast how each one will perform if promoted to that role.

 “Not everybody is a leader by definition,” Schubach says. “You have to gauge who are the better leaders. Who do people flock to? Who do people respect? Who earns the respect?”

Two principles guide successful succession plans. First is recognition that succession is about building an entire organization, not an individual. Transitions in leadership roles should strengthen the organization as a whole. Second is that leaders should make themselves replaceable by bringing in successors who are skilled and qualified enough to take on the same role.

Developing an effective succession plan starts with aligning the plan to a company’s strategic direction. This makes it easier to assess strengths and development areas for potential leaders. They can then receive on-the-job assignments that enable them to demonstrate their capabilities and learn how to function in their intended roles.

Such structured planning helps large and small organizations alike find qualified leadership at the right times.

Intermountain Healthcare has followed this blueprint through transitions in multiple executive positions over the past 10 years. Leadership candidates go through a development process that includes goal - setting, guidance on their job duties, and instruction and feedback on necessary changes as appropriate.

 “When a leader moves into a new role, we offer a structured onboarding plan for the leaders so that they understand their new role,” says Christine Homer, Intermountain Healthcare assistant vice president for talent management.

The end result is smooth transitions for individuals developed to tackle specific roles.

“It gives leaders who wish to grow and develop in the organization clear guidance on their strengths in their development areas,” Homer says. “It lets them know they do have opportunities to progress in the organization.”

Progressing into new roles instead of being thrown into the fire helped Inovar enact a smooth succession plan a year ago. Carlin notes that six to nine months before the actual planned changes at the top, designated successors were eased into new functions that built important skill sets they would need for their future roles in the company.

Handing out increased responsi-bilities relevant to the position in question helped Carlin, new Inovar President Craig Rupp and Rupp’s successor as head of engineering all hit the ground running when Kirby officially handed off the reins to his new leadership team.

The results have turned out better than anyone originally expected. Everyone passed the test ahead of them with flying colors.

 “Each person has brought a new energy to their role and new ideas,” Carlin says. “We probably underestimated how valuable that would be. When people are in their roles for a few years—I never use the term ‘they get stale,’ but they have a certain way of doing things. When you get a pair of fresh eyes in there, it will really have some good short-term impact. That’s worked out very well and we probably underestimated that effect.”

Building Bridges of Communication

Succession planning works best when communication remains open and adjust-ments to the original plan can be made as needed before it is put into action.

Once a candidate is identified for a leadership position, they are given time to see if they are the right fit for what a company needs going forward. If their skills and abilities just are not a good match, the leadership team needs to be flexible enough to change direction.

 “The parties involved in the succession have to be on the same page,” says Aaron Schubach, CEO of Opticare of Utah and CEO-in-waiting at Standard Optical. “We talk about it every day. We do have to be able to adjust that [plan]. Open communication is key.”

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