Problems in Communicating

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Communicating about an SP&M program presents unique problems that are

rarely encountered in other areas of organizational operations. The reason:

many top managers are hesitant to share information about their programs

widely inside or outside their organizations. They are reluctant to share information

outside the organization for fear that succession plans will reveal too

much about the organization’s strategy. If an SP&M program is closely linked

to, and supportive of, strategic plans—and that is desirable—then revealing

information about it may tip off canny competitors to what the organization

intends to do.

They are reluctant to share information inside the organization for fear

that it will lead to negative consequences. High-performing or high-potential

employees who are aware that they are designated successors for key positions


Become complacent because they think advancement is guaranteed.

This is called the crown prince phenomenon.

Exhibit 7-1. A Worksheet for Preparing an Action Plan to Establish the

Succession Planning and Management Program

Directions: Use this worksheet to help you formulate an action plan to guide the

start-up of an SP&M program in your organization. In column 1, list program priorities

(what must be done first, second, third, and so on?) and provide a rationale (why

are these priorities?). In column 2, list what tasks must be carried out to transform

priorities into realities (how will priorities be achieved?). In column 3, assign responsibility

for each task. In column 4, indicate (if applicable) special locations (where

must the tasks be accomplished or the priorities achieved?). In column 5, assign

deadlines or time indicators.

Circulate this worksheet among decision-makers—especially top-level managers

who are participating on an SP&M committee. Ask each decision-maker to complete

the worksheet individually. Then compile their responses, feed them back, and meet

to achieve consensus on this detailed action plan. Add paper and/or priorities as


Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5

Program Deadlines/

Priorities Time

and Rationale Tasks Responsibility Location(s) Indicators

(By when (How will pri- (Who is re- (Where must (Assign deadshould

each orities be sponsible for tasks be ac- lines or time

task be com- achieved?) each task?) complished, indicators.)

pleted? What if that is apmust

be done plicable?)

in order of


and why are

these priorities?)

Grow disenchanted if organizational conditions change and their status

as successors is no longer assured.

‘‘Hold themselves for ransom’’ by threatening to leave unless they receive

escalating raises or advancement opportunities.

Of course, the opposite can also happen. If high potentials are kept unaware

of their status, they may seek advancement opportunities elsewhere. Equally

bad, good performers who are not presently identified as successors for key

positions may grow disenchanted and demotivated, even though they may

already be demonstrating that they have that potential. A poorly handled communication

strategy can lead to increases in avoidable or critical turnover,

thereby costing the organization precious talent and driving up training costs.

Choosing Effective Approaches

As part of the SP&M program, decision-makers should review how the organization

has historically communicated about succession issues—and consider

how it should communicate about them. Establishing a consistent communication

strategy is vital.

Valuable clues about the organization’s historical communication strategy

may be found in how key job incumbents were treated previously and how

wage and salary matters are handled. If key job incumbents did not know that

they were designated successors before they were eligible for advancement or

if the organization’s practice is not to publish salary schedules, then it is likely

that a ‘‘closed’’ communication strategy is preferred. That means information

is kept secret, and successors are not alerted to their status. On the other

hand, if key job incumbents did know that they were designated successors

before they were promoted or if salary schedules are published, then an

‘‘open’’ communication strategy is preferred. That means people are treated

with candor.

Choose an approach to communication based on the preferences of decision-

makers. If their preferences seem unclear, ask questions to discover what

they are:

How, if at all, should employees be informed about the SP&M program?

(For instance, should the mission statement and/or policy and procedures

on SP&M be circulated?)

How should the organization characterize the roles of employee performance

appraisal, individual potential assessment, and individual development

planning in SP&M?

How should decisions about individual selection, promotion, demotion,

transfer, or development in place be explained to those who ask?

What problems will result from informing individuals about their status

in succession plans? From not informing them?

What problems will result from informing employees about the SP&M

program? What problems will result from not informing them?

Ultimately, the organization should choose a communication policy that is

consistent with the answers to the questions above. Often the best approach

is to communicate openly about the SP&M program in general, but conceal

the basis for individual personnel actions in line with good business practice

and individual privacy laws. Individuals should be encouraged to develop

themselves for the future, but should understand, at the same time, that nothing

is being ‘‘promised’’; rather, qualifying is a first step but does not, in itself,

guarantee advancement.

Conducting Succession Planning and Management


It is a rare organization that does not need at least one meeting to lay the

foundation for a systematic SP&M program. Often, four meetings are necessary

during startup: one of top decision-makers to verify the need for the program;

a second, larger meeting to seek input from major stakeholders; a third,

smaller committee meeting of change champions to hammer out a proposal

to guide program startup; and a fourth meeting to introduce the program and

reinforce its importance to management employees who will play critical roles

in cultivating, nurturing, coaching, and preparing the leaders of the future at

all levels. Later, periodic meetings are necessary to review program progress

and ensure continuous improvement.

Meeting 1: Verifying the Need

In the first meeting, a handpicked group—usually limited to the ‘‘top of the

house’’—meets to verify that a genuine need exists to make SP&M a more

systematic process. In this meeting it is common to review current practices

and problems that stem from an informal approach to SP&M. This meeting

usually stems directly from a crisis or from the request of one who wants to

introduce a new way to carry out SP&M.

Meeting 2: Seeking Input

In the second meeting, a larger group of key decision-makers is usually assembled

to surface SP&M problems and to galvanize action. This meeting may take

the form of an executive retreat. Executives should properly be involved in the

program formulation process, since—regardless of the initial targeted group

for the SP&M program and its initial priorities—such a program has important

strategic implications for the organization. Despite recent moves to involve

employees in organizational decision making, it has long been held that executives

have the chief responsibility for organizational strategy formulation. That

is borne out by numerous research studies of executive roles.1 It is also consistent

with the commonsense view that someone must assume leadership when

beginning new initiatives.2

Planning an executive retreat focused on SP&M should usually be a joint

undertaking of the CEO and a designated coordinator for the SP&M program.

 (The coordinator may be the vice president of personnel or human resources,

a high-level staff generalist from the HR function, the training director, an OD

director, or a management development director.) A designated coordinator

is needed because busy CEOs, while they should maintain active personal

involvement in the SP&M program if it is to work, will seldom have the necessary

time to oversee daily program operations. That responsibility should be

assigned to someone or it will be lost in the shuffle of daily work responsibilities.

Hence, naming a program coordinator is usually an advisable choice.

While a designated coordinator may be selected from a high level of the

line (operating) management ranks—and that will be a necessity in small organizations

not having an HR function—the individual chosen for this responsibility

should have a strong commitment to SP&M, considerable knowledge

about the organization’s HR policies and procedures as well as applicable HR

laws, expertise in state-of-the-art management and leadership development

and human resource development practices, in-depth knowledge about the

organization’s culture, and credibility with all levels of the organization’s management.

(It doesn’t hurt, either, if the individual chosen for this role is perceived

to be a high-potential in his or her own right.)

The CEO and the SP&M coordinator should meet to hammer out an action

plan for the executive retreat focused on collecting input. The retreat should

be held soon after the CEO announces the need for a systematic SP&M program

and names a program coordinator. Invitations should be extended to the

CEO’s immediate reports. The retreat should usually be held off-site, at a quiet

and secluded location, to minimize interruptions. The focus of the retreat

should usually be on:

Explaining the need for a more systematic approach to SP&M

Formulating a (draft) program mission statement

Identifying initial target groups to be served by the program

Setting initial program priorities

An executive retreat is worthwhile because it engages the attention—and

involvement—of key players in the organization’s strategic planning activities,

thereby creating a natural bridge between SP&M and strategic planning. The

retreat’s agenda should reflect the desired outcomes. Presentations may be

made by the CEO, the SP&M coordinator, and the vice president of HR. Outsiders

may be invited to share information about SP&M—including testimonials

about succession programs in other organizations, war stories about the problems

that can result when SP&M is ignored, and descriptions of state-of-the-art

SP&M practices. An important component of any retreat should be small-group

activities geared to surfacing problems and achieving consensus. (Many of the

activities and worksheets provided in this book can be adapted for that purpose,

and the CD-ROM accompanying this book contains a briefing on succes-

sion suitable for such a meeting.) In many cases, a retreat will end when the

CEO appoints a standing committee to work with the succession planning

coordinator to report back with a detailed program proposal.

In some organizations, the CEO or the SP&M coordinator may prefer that

the retreat be facilitated by third-party consultants. That is desirable if the consultants

can be located and if they possess considerable expertise in SP&M

and in group facilitation. It is also desirable if the CEO feels that third-party

consultants will increase the credibility and emphasize the importance of the


Meeting 3: Hammering Out a Proposal

A standing SP&M committee should be established to continue the program

formulation process begun in the executive retreat. A committee format is

really the best approach to (1) maintain high-level commitment and support,

(2) conserve the time required to review the fruits of the committee’s investigations,

and (3) provide a means for senior-level involvement in SP&M. The

SP&M coordinator should be automatically named a committee member,

though not necessarily committee chair. If the CEO can be personally involved—

and that is highly desirable—he or she should be the chair. Committee

members should be chosen for their interest in SP&M, their track records

of exemplary performance, their proven ability to develop people, and their

keen insight into organizational culture.

In most organizations, a committee of this kind should meet frequently

and regularly during program startup. Initial meetings should focus on investigating

organizational SP&M needs, benchmarking practices in other organizations,

and drafting a detailed proposal to guide the SP&M program.

Meeting 4: The Kickoff Meeting

In the fourth meeting, the program is introduced to those previously involved

in the second meeting and any others, as appropriate. This is typically called a

kickoff meeting.

In most cases, this meeting should focus on program details—and the part

that the meeting participants should play to ensure program success. In short,

a kickoff meeting should seek answers to two questions: (1) What is the

SP&M program in the organization? and (2) What do the participants need to

do to make the program successful?

When organizing a kickoff meeting, pay attention to the following questions:

1. Who will be invited?

2. What exactly should participants know or be able to do upon leaving

the meeting?

3. When should the kickoff meeting be held? For instance, would timing

it to follow a strategic planning retreat be desirable?

4. Where should the kickoff meeting be held? If maximum secrecy is desired,

an off-site location is wise.

5. Why is the meeting being held? If the aim is to reinforce the importance

of this new effort, then the CEO should usually be the keynote presenter.

6. How will the meeting be conducted?

Specific training on program details can then be offered later on establishing

work requirements, appraising present individual performance, assessing future

individual potential, establishing career goals, establishing individual development

plans (IDPs), and using training, education, and development to

help meet succession needs.

Meeting 5: Periodic Review Meetings

Conduct periodic review meetings after the succession planning program has

been established. These meetings should focus on such issues as:

The linkage between SP&M and organizational strategic plans (that may

be handled during strategic planning retreats)

The progress made in the SP&M program

Any need for revisions to the program’s mission statement, governing

policy and procedures, target groups, priorities, action plans, communication

strategies, and training relevant to the succession planning program

The status of succession issues in each organizational component, including

periodic meetings between the CEO and senior executives

The last of these should be familiar to executives in most major corporations.

Once a quarter, senior executives from each part of the corporation

meet with the CEO and a top-level committee to review the status of SP&M in

that part of the corporation. Common topics in such meetings include: (1)

reviewing employee performance; (2) identifying and discussing high potentials;

(3) discussing progress made on individual development plans; and (4)

addressing critical strengths and weaknesses having to do with individual development.

Such meetings serve to keep the SP&M program on target and to

emphasize its importance to senior executives, who should be held accountable

for ‘‘people development’’ as much as for ‘‘market development’’ or ‘‘financial


Training on Succession Planning and Management

Implementing a systematic approach to SP&M requires new knowledge and

skills from those expected to cultivate the organization’s internal talent. Some

means must be found to train them so that they are the most efficient and

effective in their new role.

Matching Training to Program Planning

Training to support SP&M should be designed to match program priorities.

Indeed, to plan training on SP&M, examine program priorities first, and use

them as clues for designing initial training efforts.

In most cases, when organizations establish systematic SP&M, training

should be undertaken to answer the following questions:

What is the organization’s SP&M program? What are its mission, policy,

procedures, and activities?

What are the desirable roles of management employees, succession

planning and management facilitators, and individual employees in the

SP&M program?

What is the organization’s preferred approach to clarifying present and

future work requirements? How should it relate to SP&M as a source of

information about activities, duties, responsibilities, competencies, and

success factors in key positions?

What is the organization’s performance appraisal system, and how

should it relate to succession as a source of information about individual

job performance?

What is the organization’s formally planned individual career planning

program (if one exists), and how does it relate to succession as a source

of information about individual career goals and aspirations?

What is the organization’s potential assessment program (if one exists,

as it should), and how does it relate to succession as a source of information

about individual potential for future advancement?

How do the organization’s training, education, and development programs

relate to preparing individuals for succession and advancement?

What is an individual development plan? Why is planning for individual

development important? How should programs for individual development

be designed? Implemented? Tracked?

How does the organization keep track of its human talent?

How should the organization evaluate and continuously improve its

SP&M program?

How should the organization handle special issues in SP&M—such as

high performers, high potentials, and plateaued workers?

How should the SP&M program be linked to the organization’s strategy?

To HR strategy? To other plans (as appropriate)?

Refer to the draft training outlines appearing in Exhibit 7-2 and to the training

material provided on the CD-ROM accompanying this book as starting points

for developing in-house training sessions on SP&M. Note that such training

should be tailor-made to meet organizational needs.

As an alternative, decision-makers may prefer to contract with qualified

external consultants to design and deliver training on SP&M for the organization.

Such consultants may be located through word-of-mouth referrals from

practitioners in other organizations, those who have written extensively on

SP&M, or organizations listed on the Web. They are especially appropriate to

use when in-house expertise is limited, external consultants will lend initial

credibility to the program, the pressure is on to obtain quick results, or inhouse

staff members are unavailable. If decision-makers decide to use external

assistance, then the consultants should be invited in for a day or two to discuss

what assistance they can provide. They should be asked for references from

previous organizations with which they have worked. Before their arrival, they

should also be given detailed background information about the organization

and its existing SP&M programs and challenges.

Many external consultants will begin by meeting individually with key decision-

makers and will then provide a brief group presentation about SP&M

issues. Both can serve a valuable purpose. Individual meetings will emphasize

the importance of the issue. Group meetings will help to informally educate

participants about state-of-the-art practices outside the organization, which

can create an impetus for change.