Assessing Current Problems

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Crisis is a common impetus for change. As problems arise and are noticed,

people naturally search for solutions. As the magnitude and severity of the

problems increase, the search for a solution intensifies.

The same principles apply to SP&M. If the organization has experienced no

crises in finding qualified successors, retaining talented people, maintaining

leadership continuity, or facilitating individual advancement, then few decision-

makers will feel an urgent need to direct attention to these issues. On the

other hand, SP&M is likely to attract increasing attention when problems like

these surface:

Key positions are filled only after long delays.

Key positions can be filled only by hiring from outside.

Key positions have few people ‘‘ready now’’ to assume them (that is

called weak bench strength).

Vacancies in key positions cannot be filled with confidence.

Key positions are subject to frequent or unexpected turnover.

Replacements for key positions are frequently unsuccessful in performing

their new duties.

High performers or high-potential employees are leaving the organization

in droves.

Individuals routinely leave the organization to advance professionally

or to achieve their career goals.

Decision-makers complain about weak bench strength.

Employees complain that decisions about whom to advance are not

based on who is best qualified but rather on caprice, nepotism, and

personal favoritism.

Employees and decision-makers complain that decisions about whom

to promote into key positions are adversely affected by discrimination

or by expediency.

To build a case for a systematic approach to SP&M, ask decision-makers if

they face the problems listed above. Additionally, focus attention on identifying

the most important problems the organization is facing and review how

those problems are influenced by existing SP&M practices. If possible, document

actual succession problems that have been experienced in the past—

including ‘‘horror stories’’ (anecdotes about major problem situations) or

‘‘war stories’’ (anecdotes about negative experiences), if possible. Although

anecdotes do not necessarily provide an accurate indication of existing conditions,

they can be powerfully persuasive and can help convince skeptical decision-

makers that a problem warrants investigation. Use them to focus attention

on the organization’s present SP&M practices—and, when appropriate, the

need to change them from informal to systematic. Also, consider using approaches

to identify and overcome objections to a SP&M program. (See Exhibit


In my 2004 survey, I asked the respondents to indicate whether SP&M had

become more important to their organizations over the last few years. Their

answers are revealing, indicating that many current problems have emerged

that necessitate increased attention to SP&M. (See Exhibit 5-2.)

Exhibit 5-1. Strategies for Handling Resistance to Implementing Succession

Planning and Management

Possible Cause of Resistance Possible Strategies for Handling the Cause

Managers or employees resist a

SP&M program because they

believe it will:

Mean that they have to give up _ Consider establishing a council to advise on

something (such as a say in who matters related to the program.

is promoted). _ Emphasize that organizational superiors of

all individuals can and will be involved in

making decisions.

Require work for no reason _ Start by describing how and why other orga-

(they see no need for it). nizations have used succession planning.

_ Show reasons for the program that go beyond

mere replacement planning and include

individual development.

Do more harm than good. _ Try to find out why managers and employees

feel this way and ask for their advice about

how to prevent abuses of the program.

Be managed by people who are _ Hire an external consultant to establish the

not trustworthy or managed in a framework for the program and isolate the

way that is not ethical. nature of the possible concerns.

Require too much time, effort, _ Explain what information is required to

or resources. make SP&M useful and then seek the advice

of those who resist the program on this basis

by asking for their suggestions about the

best ways to get that information.

_ Double-check to determine whether you are

recommending that the program be installed

too quickly rather than gradually implemented.

Exhibit 5-2. The Importance of Succession Planning and Management

Question: Has succession planning become more important to your organization

over the last few years? If yes, briefly tell why; if no, briefly tell why.

All respondents answered yes, and provided the following reasons:

_ Leadership is the key to a healthy business in a ‘‘down’’ business environment.

_ It has been added to the President’s Management Agenda.

_ Board of directors requirements. It is now a corporate governance issue. Investors

look for it.

_ Because up to 1/3 of our employees will be eligible to retire within the next few


_ The marketplace has changed and succession planning allows us to continue to


_ Turnover among execs participating in succession plans due to minimal executive


_ A large number of organizational employees are ready for retirement in five years.

Source: William J. Rothwell, Results of a 2004 Survey on Succession Planning and Management Practices. Unpublished survey

results (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University, 2004).

Assessing Current Practices

In large organizations using an informal approach to SP&M, nobody is aware

of the methods being used within the organization. Nor should they be. After

all, in those settings SP&M is handled idiosyncratically—or not at all—by each

manager. As a consequence, nobody is aware of the organization’s existing


A good place to start, then, is to find out what practices are currently being

used in the organization. Exemplary, albeit isolated, approaches may already

be in use, and they may serve as excellent starting points on which to begin a

systematic approach. They enjoy the advantage of a track record because they

have already been tried out in the organization and probably have one or more

managers who support them.

To emphasize this point, I am aware of one Fortune 500 corporation that

uses an informal approach: Managers establish their own SP&M approaches as

they feel they are warranted, and those activities vary dramatically. Most managers

make no effort to conduct SP&M. As vacancies occur, replacements are

frantically sought. Filling key positions is a crisis-oriented activity. (That is

often true in organizations without systematic SP&M programs, as my 2004

survey revealed; see Exhibit 5-3.)

But even in this organization, one major operating division has established

Exhibit 5-3. Making Decisions About Successors (in Organizations Without

Systematic Succession Planning and Management)

Question: How are decisions made about successors for positions in your organization?

Circle all appropriate response codes below.



We usually wait until positions are vacant and then scurry around

madly to find successors. 21%

We ‘‘secretly’’ prepare successors. 32%

Whenever a position opens up, we rely on expediency to identify

someone to fill it, hoping for the best. 37%

Other Methods 11%

Total 100%

Source: William J. Rothwell, Results of a 2004 Survey on Succession Planning and Management Practices. Unpublished survey

results (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University, 2004).

a practice of circulating a confidential memo each year to department managers

to request their nominations for their own replacements. No attempt is

made to verify that the candidates possess the requisite knowledge and skills

suitable for advancement; no attempt is made to verify that the candidates are

willing to accept new assignments; and no attempt is made to ensure their

availability, if needed, or to prepare them for advancement. However, the practice

of circulating a memo is an excellent place to start a systematic approach

to SP&M. It can be a focal point to direct attention to the issue—and to the

need to adopt a systematic approach.

Use three approaches to assess the current status of SP&M in the organization:

(1) talk to others informally; (2) send out an electronic mail question; or

(3) conduct a written survey.

Talk to Others Informally

Ask key decision-makers how they are handling SP&M practices. Begin by talking

to the chairman or chief executive officer, if possible, because that person

is likely to be more aware of the processes than others. Then discuss the matter

with other top managers. Pose questions such as the following:

How is the organization presently handling SP&M? What is being done

at the highest levels? At the lower levels? In different divisions? In different


In your opinion, what should the organization be doing about

SP&M—and why do you believe so?

What predictable losses of key personnel are anticipated in your area of

responsibility? For example, how many pending retirements are you

aware of? Will pending promotions lead to a domino effect in which a

vacancy in one key position, filled by promotion from within, will set

off a chain reaction that leads to a series of vacancies in many other


What people or positions are absolutely critical to the continued successful

operation of your division, function, department, or location?

How would you handle the sudden and unexpected loss of a key person?

Several key people?

Have you experienced the loss of a key person in the last year or two?

How did you handle it? If you had to do it again, would you handle it

the same way? If so, why? If not, why not?

What regular efforts, if any, do you make to identify possible replacements

for key people or positions in your part of the organization? (For

example, do you discuss this issue as part of management performance

appraisals, during business planning activities, or in other ways?)

What efforts, if any, do you make to identify individuals with the potential

to advance beyond their current positions?

How do you prepare individuals to advance when you perceive they

have potential? What systematic efforts are made to train, educate, or

develop them for future positions?

What strongly held beliefs do you have about SP&M? For instance, do

you believe the organization should inform possible successors of their

status (and thereby risk creating a crown prince problem) or conceal

that information (and risk losing high-potential employees who are

tapped for better advancement prospects elsewhere, perhaps by other

organizations or even by competitors)? How do you believe the organization

should handle plateaued workers, who will advance no further,

and blocked workers, who are unable to advance beyond their current

positions because they are blocked by plateaued workers above them?

When you finish interviewing decision-makers, prepare a summary of the

results about SP&M practices in the organization. Cite individual names only

if given explicit permission to do so. Include a summary of current information

on effective SP&M practices obtained externally—from sources such as this

book—and then ask if more attention can be devoted to the topic. The reactions

you receive should provide valuable clues to how much interest and

support exists among key decision-makers to explore a systematic approach to